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Spring 2001
MELANCHOLY BABY
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"The postpartum period is the most psychiatrically vulnerable time in a woman's life," says UCLA's Vivien K. Burt, associate professor of clinical psychiatry. In 1993, Burt founded the Women's Life Center at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital, a program specially designed to address mood and anxiety disorders as they relate to women.

The Women's Life Center focuses on mental-health treatment during the special phases of a woman's life, such as conception, pregnancy and menopause. At the time of its creation, only one similar facility existed in the United States. Since then, Burt and her colleagues have advised a number of universities that have opened such centers, including Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., UC San Diego and UC San Francisco.

"A woman suffering from postpartum depression needs to understand that it's a treatable illness and it doesn't mean that she's a bad mother or one who can't bond with her child," says Burt. Treatment can include antidepressant medication, individual counseling or group counseling. Most experts agree that women do best with both medication and counseling.

Angela Farrell, an adjunct lecturer in the Division of Psychiatry, facilitates UCLA's support group for those with depression during pregnancy or postpartum. "It's important to take social and environmental factors into account along with biology. The interplay between them plays a part in just about all psychiatric diagnoses," she says.

Certain factors can make a woman more vulnerable to developing PPD. These include a previous history of depression, as well as social stresses such as an absent or unsupportive partner, financial problems or a recent loss.

Although the role of personality remains unclear, Burt and Farrell have noticed certain traits that seem to be shared by women who suffer from PPD. "They tend to be hard on themselves and look for their own deficiencies when things don't go well," says Burt. Or, as Farrell describes it, "They're A students who feel like they're getting a C."

Mary Wilson, a Los Angeles-area mother of two, sought help from the Women's Life Center after experiencing a panic attack five days after the birth of her second child. "Up to then, everything had been perfect," she says. Her doctor told her to get some sleep and that she'd feel better in three months. Instead, Wilson's condition worsened, until she was consumed with such thoughts as "What did I do? I can't handle this" and "I don't want him."

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