Documentary Explores The 'Dark Side' Of Pregnancy & Motherhood

Sep 22, 2016

Credit Flickr user Simon

Up to a quarter of American women will experience mental illness during pregnancy or after childbirth, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, yet health care providers are not required to screen for these conditions.

The film “Dark Side of the Full Moon” explores maternal mental health through interviews with mothers, doctors, midwives and scholars. A free screening is scheduled for this Sunday evening at 7 p.m. at the Omni William Penn Hotel. The event is part of the American Association of Birth Centers annual conference, which is in town this weekend.

Jennifer Silliman produced the film, and became a maternal mental health activist after her own struggle with perinatal and post-partum anxiety. She spoke with 90.5 WESA’s Liz Reid.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

On her own experience with mental illness:

My anxiety actually started during my third trimester of being pregnant. That’s why I was very confused about what was happening to me. Because one, I wasn’t depressed, and two, I hadn’t had my baby yet. That plunge of hormones they talk about after delivery hadn’t happened.

I started having what I now know are intrusive thoughts, which kind of spiraled out of control. They were horrific scary thoughts of — I was pregnant — so having thoughts of somebody attacking my stomach with a knife.

My whole thought process was, “Once I’m not pregnant anymore, I won’t have those thoughts,” because the thoughts were very specific to my large belly that I had at the time. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

I never really talked about the thoughts I was having because I really thought that they were going to think that I wanted to hurt her, which was not anything like that at all. It was just that I couldn’t get those thoughts out of my head at all. When I finally told my husband what was going on, he was able to convince me to call my therapist. I was able to get an emergency psych appointment the very next day and was placed on medication.

On how stigma keeps women suffering in silence:

My therapist said to me that I should be very careful who I share my story with, because some people may judge you and may actually think you really wanted to hurt your baby, so you need to be really careful with who you tell.

That stuck with me forever, because when I started learning about mental (health) in general, and especially mental health surrounding motherhood, the biggest reason why parents and families and mothers don’t speak out is because there’s such a stigma surrounding mental health. So I thought, "Wow, what a disservice that therapist did by telling me to not share my story and not talk about it with my friends." I kept those thoughts hidden for six months, and I almost lost my life.

I have many friends that have children that never spoke about there being a tough time. Perhaps it was, "Yeah, you’re not gonna sleep a lot for the first three or four months until they start sleeping through the night, but you get used to it."

But when I came out with what I had gone through, I was shocked at the amount of Facebook messages that I received from friends that I knew very well (who) had experienced similar things either during their pregnancy or afterwards, and they either never said anything because they were scared of what the other person would think or say. Or they didn’t even know there was a name for it. Because a very large percentage of women actually don’t suffer from depression, they suffer from the anxiety and intrusive thoughts, and they literally sometimes just think they’re going crazy.

On how to support women suffering from perinatal or post-partum mental illness:

Be supportive and listen. Don’t be judgmental. Believe what she’s saying to you, and don’t tell her that it’s normal. As a new mom who is suffering so badly from something , you don’t want to hear, “This is normal; this is how people feel when they’re pregnant; or this is how people feel when they just had a baby.”

If somebody would have told me that what I was experiencing was normal, I think I probably would have ended my life right after that meeting. Because if that was going to be my new normal, I wouldn’t have survived. Nobody can deal with depression like that.

I think a lot of people want to hope that it is the baby blues, and 80 percent of moms are going to experience a little bit of an emotional adjustment after they have their baby. That is completely normal,and that is not a mental health condition. Moms can experience actually the same symptoms with baby blues as they can with depression, but the biggest difference between those two things are, the baby blues don’t last longer than two, maybe three weeks, and your symptoms get better every day; they don’t get worse. With depression, your symptoms get worse. 

Health care coverage on 90.5 WESA is made possible in part by a grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

Local resources for women experiencing symptoms of perinatal or post-partum mental illness:

Support groups:

  • Out of the Blue Support Group at Shining Light Prenatal Education, 3701 Butler St.,Pittsburgh; contact Amy Lewis amy@socialemotionalchange.com, (412) 532-6622
  • Baby Steps Support Group at St. Clair Hospital Fourth Floor Medical Library; contact (412) 942-5877