Catholic Leaders vs. Postpartum Depression

In the first effort of its kind by any faith group in the state, the New Jersey Catholic Conference has launched an initiative with the statewide Maternal and Child Consortia to educate clergy, religious and lay professionals in New Jersey’s 684 parishes to recognize the warning signs of postpartum depression.

At a recent press conference at the Archdiocesan Center, Newark Archbishop John Myers said he was proud to be a part of this new venture, which he hopes will be a model for other religious groups in the state and across the nation.

One of the leading advocates of the state initiative is postpartum depression survivor Mary Jo Codey, the wife of Richard Codey, president of the New Jersey Senate and a Democrat.

Postpartum depression is estimated to affect 11,000 to 16,000 women in New Jersey annually. Following pregnancy, hormonal changes in a woman’s body are believed to sometimes trigger clinical depression, marked by feelings of guilt, loneliness, fatigue and despair.

Today, through research, education and outreach, the disease is better understood and more effectively treated, while the cruel stigma associated with it is being eliminated.

Mariann Moore of the Hudson County Perinatal Consortium in Jersey City, the lead planning agency for maternal and child health services in Hudson County, said she is grateful for the efforts of the Church to address this issue.

“It makes sense to pair up with the Church,” Moore says. “Women feel extensive guilt and will try to mask feelings because they are ashamed. Women have intrusive thoughts of harming themselves or the baby. It affects all ethnic groups, people of all ages and social class. These women need our compassion and need to know how to access treatment.”

Along with printing fliers to insert in parish bulletins, the training for priests, deacons and pastoral associates will include information about the signs and symptoms of postpartum depression and resources for referring mothers to treatment.

“Women can recover from this,” Moore adds. “We see this (initiative) reaching leaders in all religions.”

Richard and Mary Jo Codey both have been instrumental in raising awareness on postpartum depression, according to Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the Trenton-based New Jersey Catholic Conference. Because of their efforts, he says, fighting the illness through education has come to the forefront in the state.

“This (initiative) is clearly historic,” Brannigan added, calling postpartum depression “not just a woman’s issue; it is a family issue. There is a domino effect when the depression happens and the whole family is involved.”

The effort got its start last September, when Marlene Lao-Collins, the conference’s associate director for social concerns, raised the idea of getting the Church to collaborate in the training. The bishops agreed to begin a coordinated effort this year.

“Twenty-three years ago, I had no idea” what postpartum depression was, Mary Jo Codey says. “It took me to the brink of suicide, and I underwent 11 rounds of shock therapy.”

Even though she survived breast cancer, Codey said her bout with postpartum depression was the toughest thing she ever has had to endure.

“Maternal depression strikes when you are supposed to be overjoyed,” she says. “You feel shame, guilt and inadequate. We need a safety net for pregnant women and new mothers. We can do more. This initiative is an important step in strengthening that safety net.”

Wise Counsel

Sylvia Lasalandra, author and filmmaker of Daughter’s Touch, is also a postpartum depression survivor who used her horrific experiences with the illness to inform other women and families. After the birth of her daughter Melina, Lasalandra says she felt as though her life was over.

After having nightmares of smothering her child with a pillow, Lasalandra made an attempt to take her own life by overdosing on prescription medication. Fortunately, she called her mother before she could act. As a result, Lasalandra’s mother cared for the baby for nine months and Lasalandra was only allowed supervised visits.

Lasalandra confided to a Franciscan priest during her trying ordeal.

“He said that God still loves me and doesn’t think less of me,” she recalls. “He said I was a good mother. Because a mother makes sure her baby is being taken care of, I was a good mother even if I could not do it myself. By recognizing my inability to care for my daughter, he said, I was doing right by my baby and by God.”

She has since made a full recovery through therapy and the support of her family. Her daughter is now 6 years old.

“There is a horrible stigma about postpartum depression,” says Lasalandra. “Women are afraid to speak up, even to their priests. We have to open our hearts to this illness. There is no doubt that I am here today because of God and my faith. It was truly a divine intervention. Do not let these families down.”