After wife's suicide, McCandless dad champions center to treat depression in new moms at West Penn Hospital
Steven D'Achille hopes that a treatment center for pregnant women and new mothers scheduled to open this fall in Pittsburgh will prevent deaths such as his wife's.
The idea for the center, which Allegheny Health Network is adding to West Penn Hospital, came to D'Achille while he was waiting outside the intensive care unit where Alexis Joy D'Achille, his wife, was treated before her death in October 2013. She took her own life amid postpartum depression that her widower said local doctors couldn't treat.
“We will have a facility that I wish I had and my wife had when we needed it,” said D'Achille, 34, of McCandless.
The Alexis Joy D'Achille Center for Women's Behavioral Health will offer intensive group and individual therapy for up to 12 mother-baby pairs at a time, said Rebecca Weinberg, a clinical psychologist for AHN's women's behavioral health program.
The $1.2 million center is one of just a few in the country that will allow mothers to bring their babies to the therapy, Weinberg said. Having the babies present helps women with depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder develop critical bonds with their babies, and it relieves the need for mothers to find child care, she said.
The group-based approach helps participants understand that other women share their experiences, she said.
“A lot of these moms feel really alone and isolated,” Weinberg said, “that they're the only moms going through this, that they're a bad mother. … Being in a group setting helps provide them with information that there are other women going through similar things.”
D'Achille said his wife, who was 30 when she died, showed no signs of depression before the birth of their daughter, Adriana. But a traumatic delivery, in which the couple's daughter came out with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, left her mother with post-traumatic stress disorder, D'Achille said.
“She kept thinking she must have done something to the baby with this traumatic delivery,” he said.
She lost weight, had trouble breast-feeding and heard phantom baby cries, he said. The couple saw about seven doctors in the two weeks before her death, he said.
“Everywhere we went, for one reason or another, we didn't get the care that she needed and deserved,” he said.
He founded the Alexis Joy D'Achille Foundation after her death and started talking with people at AHN about how to improve mental health treatment for new mothers. The foundation has raised about $500,000, and so far has given or pledged all of it to AHN's programs, he said.
The hospital system launched an outpatient treatment program in November with similar but less-intensive services than the center will offer, Weinberg said. Twenty-eight women have received treatment through the program so far, she said.
Women can be diagnosed with postpartum depression up to a year after delivery, Weinberg said. The biggest risk factor for postpartum depression is a personal or family history of depression, she said.
“If we can intervene in pregnancy, women have a much better outcome postpartum and a much easier transition to parenthood,” Weinberg said.
Family members will be encouraged to attend for parts of the program at the center, which will last about five hours a day for four or five days a week.
D'Achille said he hopes the model will succeed and he can help spread it to other parts of the country. A restaurateur whose family owns the Pizza Roma franchise and Pomodoro in Franklin Park, he now dedicates most of his time to the foundation.
“To me, it's common sense, like, how could this not exist. But it didn't, so that's what we want to change,” he said.