Jessica M. Vernon, MD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, is an expert on post-birth complications. In medical school she was taught about hemorrhage and blood clots, and to only look out for moms with severe depression who had thoughts of killing themselves or their babies. When Dr. Vernon developed severe anxiety, panic disorder, and obsessive–compulsive behaviors after welcoming her daughter in 2018, she had no clue that this was not just the hyper-vigilance of a new mom.
While 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 of terminology from “postpartum depression” to “perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.”
It wasn’t until March 2020 when Dr. Vernon’s daughter was nearly 2 years old that she realized she needed to get help. “I thought it would get better as my daughter got older, but when she started crawling and putting things in her mouth, I constantly imagined she would choke on something or poison herself,” says Dr. Vernon.
After Dr. Vernon received a postpartum depression diagnosis, she was prescribed medication to manage her symptoms and began seeing a therapist. “How could I, a board-certified OB-GYN, spend two years suffering and find myself on the precipice of an emotional breakdown before I was able to diagnose my own severe anxiety and depression?” says Dr. Vernon.
Today, Dr. Vernon has her life back and is spearheading an initiative in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology to screen pregnant women for risk factors of postpartum depression. Dr. Vernon and colleagues received a national grant aimed at creating and implementing an evidence-based educational curriculum for residents and faculty on perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, establishing the Perinatal Mental Health Program. If a patient is deemed high-risk, she is connected to a psychiatrist through the Reproductive Psychiatry Program. Obstetric patients are offered support groups, counseling, and medication management at the new outpatient care center for women’s health and wellness, NYU Langone Ambulatory Care Center at East 53rd Street.
Dr. Vernon isn’t just fighting for early screening, she wants physicians to continue screening women for postpartum depression after the initial six-week postpartum exam. “A lot of women feel fine at that point, but then they decompensate later when they’re about to go back to work at three months,” she says. “Babies get so many checkups, but moms get maybe one or two? It makes no sense.”
“As doctors, it’s important to show people that we’re humans, too, and we deal with the same things,” Dr. Vernon says. “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 cesarean delivery and not love breastfeeding and struggle with postpartum depression and be an amazing mom,” Dr. Vernon says. “I want others to know that.”
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