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How an OB-GYN didn't realize she was struggling with postpartum depression

Dr. Jessica Vernon completed four years of medical school and residency. How did she miss the signs?
/ Source: TODAY

When Dr. Jessica Vernon was studying to become an OB-GYN, she became an expert on post-birth complications. 

“We’re taught so much about hemorrhage and preeclampsia and blood clots,” Vernon told TODAY Parents. “But postpartum depression? That was glossed over. It was basically like, ‘Make sure she’s not psychotic.’”

Vernon didn’t experience psychosis after welcoming her daughter, Cahya, in June 2018 — but her anxiety was through the roof. She was constantly worried about breastfeeding, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and her baby's immune system. She developed obsessive compulsive behaviors and couldn’t sleep.

Vernon also frequently felt irritable and angry — emotions she chalked up to exhaustion. 

“I was always on high alert — I was hyper alert,” Vernon said. “But I thought it was normal new mom stuff.”

Vernon never considered that she was battling postpartum depression.

“I wasn’t suicidal or homicidal or anything like that,” she explained. “Those are the signs I’d been trained to look for. Are you depressed? Can you get out of bed? You can? OK. You’re fine.’” 

While awareness of postpartum depression has increased in recent years, few understand that the postpartum period can include several disorders, including anxiety. This is exactly why some are using a change in terminology from “postpartum depression” to “perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.”

Cahya was nearly 2 years old in March 2020 when Vernon realized she needed to get help. She was consumed by thoughts that Cahya might choke on a grape or drown. Vernon, who is known for her gentle bedside manner, found herself becoming increasingly short with patients. She felt guilty for going to work and leaving Cahya with a nanny.

“I felt like an overloaded computer that was about to die,” Vernon said. “I was shutting down.”

Finding a path forward

After Vernon was diagnosed with postpartum depression, she was prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) to manage her symptoms. She also began seeing a therapist.

“I felt better pretty quickly,” Vernon said. “I wasn’t on edge all the time. I could finally breathe and relax. I got into meditation, which I never could have done when I was anxious because my brain wouldn’t have calmed down long enough.”

Vernon had her life back.

Today, the clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at NYU Langone Health is spearheading an initiative to screen pregnant women for risk factors of postpartum depression. If a patient is deemed high-risk, she is connected to a reproductive psychiatrist. The hospital also hosts support groups. 

“Early intervention is key,” Vernon said. 

Some risk factors include a history of anxiety, infertility and prior loss. Vernon noted that she had a history of anxiety.

Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are two times more likely to suffer from postpartum depression, Vernon said. Single moms and older moms are also at higher risk, as are those who are carrying multiples or who develop complications during their pregnancy such as high blood pressure or gestational diabetes.

Getting enough support

Vernon isn't just fighting for early screening. She wants doctors to continue screening women for postpartum depression after their initial six-week postpartum exam. 

“A lot of women feel fine at that point, but then they decompensated later when they’re about to go back to work at three months,” she said. “Babies get so many checkups, but moms get maybe one or two? It makes no sense.”

Vernon chronicles motherhood and health at her website, Metamorphosis to Mom. She's written at length about her own battle with postpartum depression.

“As doctors, it’s important to show people that we’re humans, too, and we deal with the same things,” Vernon said. “And as women, we need to not just hold up the stories of the mom who had the perfect home birth and breastfed beautifully and is glowing. ...

"You can have a C-section and not love breastfeeding and struggle with postpartum depression and be an amazing mom," Vernon said. "I want others to know that."