Trauma in the Delivery Room: Childbirth-Related PTSD Gaining Recognition

Amid the debate over how to effectively manage maternal mental-health disorders, a new type of postpartum illness is gaining attention: post-traumatic-stress disorder due to childbirth.

PTSD is most commonly associated with combat veterans and victims of violent crime, but medical experts say it also can be brought on by a very painful or complicated labor and delivery in which a woman believes she or her baby might die. Symptoms can include anxiety, flashbacks and a numbness to daily life. Even as medical advances have resulted in many more lives saved during high-risk births, extreme medical interventions can leave a mother severely stressed — especially if she feels powerless or mistreated by health providers.

PTSD is much less common than postpartum depression, which has become better-understood by the public as celebrities like actress Brooke Shields and former CIA agent Valerie Plame have spoken out about their experiences. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that postpartum depression affects 15 percent of mothers.

The incidence of childbirth-related PTSD hasn't been widely studied. But a new survey suggests the disorder could be more widespread than previously believed. Of more than 900 U.S. mothers surveyed, 9 percent screened positive for meeting all of the formal criteria for PTSD set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-IV, a handbook of mental-health conditions. And 18 percent of respondents had some signs of the disorder. The survey, which included an established PTSD screening tool, was conducted by Harris Interactive for Childbirth Connection, a nonprofit maternity-care organization in New York. Separate earlier studies outside the U.S. had estimated the prevalence of childbirth-related PTSD at between 1.5 percent and 5.9 percent.

Shari Lusskin, director of reproductive psychiatry at New York University Medical Center, who wasn't involved in the survey, cautions that many aspects of PTSD still aren't understood, especially as it may apply to childbirth. "We don't want to overmedicalize a normal part of human development," she says. "Just because you had a traumatic birth, doesn't mean you'll get PTSD."

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