For New Moms: Innovations in Treating Postpartum Depression

At Allegheny Health Network, new mothers receive specialized treatment for a condition many have suffered through in secret.




Dr. Sarah Homitsky (right) meets with patient Erin Benacquista and her 7-month-old daughter Daphne at the Women’s Perinatal Psychiatry Program at West Penn Hospital | Photos by Martha Rial
 

Erin Benacquista’s mind was racing. Late one Saturday evening, her 1-month-old baby, Daphne, had a temperature of 99.6 degrees. She couldn’t escape the fear that something could be seriously wrong. She decided to have her pediatrician paged.

The doctor called her back and listened to her concerns.

“I’m not worried,” the pediatrician told her. “You should not be worried.”  

After all, the temperature was only one degree above normal.

That’s when it struck her — she was suffering from anxiety about her baby. It was the first time that Benacquista, who lives in Ross Township, had experienced that kind of worry; it hadn’t struck five years prior when she was a first-time mom.

Her obstetrician recommended West Penn Hospital’s program for women suffering from pregnancy-related depression and anxiety. Benacquista says the therapy and support she has received there has helped her to enjoy her baby without being weighed down by the dull ache of worry. She brings Daphne, now 7 months, to the sessions.

“Worrying about a 99-degree temperature is no way to spend your day,” Benacquista says. “This is a real resource for women. I truly cannot say enough about the staff.”

​Benacquista attends weekly counseling sessions; other new mothers whose depression may not respond to traditional therapy attend the Intensive Outpatient Program at West Penn Hospital, part of the Allegheny Health Network. The more intensive program opened in November as part of an emerging method of treatment now in place at about 15 hospitals nationwide. It treats pregnant women suffering from depression as well as new mothers, babies in tow, who attend three-hour sessions three times a week.  
 



 

Women with postpartum depression often experience crying, insomnia, fatigue, appetite changes, loss of enjoyment in activities, anxiety and difficulty forming an attachment to their babies. For women with severe cases, once-a-week sessions available through some programs may not bring them relief from severe depression or anxiety, according to Dr. Sarah Homitsky, medical director for the Women’s Perinatal Psychiatry Program at West Penn Hospital.

Even though postpartum depression occurs after an estimated 15 percent of all births, mothers often hide their despair because of expectations that they should be awash in a maternal glow.

“There is this sense that this should be the happiest time of your life,” says Homitsky. “It’s like, ‘How could you be sad? You have everything you want.’ That just fosters hopelessness and guilt [in] women who are doing their best. They say, ‘I am the worst mother in the world. I’m never going to be good at this.’’’

Instead of feeling maternal bliss, sometimes mothers settle in with their newborns and find themselves overwhelmed. “They feel guilty for making mistakes throughout the day, being forgetful and not anticipating things,” says David Rizzo, a social worker at the program. “Self-blame is often unwarranted. We consider alternative perspectives. We help them establish effective skills to push back against depression and anxiety.”

The program allows staff to observe women with their babies and tailor the program to each woman’s needs. Mothers also are taught how to massage their babies and hold them in a way that enhances bonding. The depression and anxiety may be treated through a combination of medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga, meditation and light therapy. 

For Benacquista, counseling with Rizzo helped her to slow down her anxious thoughts. She learned mindfulness and grounding techniques to break free from her emotional state — concentrating on something factual, such as mentally going through the steps of making a recipe for dinner. The staff’s familiarity with the issue of postpartum anxiety also was reassuring. “I felt like David knew what I was going to say before I said it. They have such vast experience with this issue.”

Though Benacquista’s husband is supportive, other new mothers have to navigate strains in interpersonal relationships. The arrival of a new family member may disrupt routines or change dynamics; this can put significant strain on a marriage.

“We might bring in the partner for a discussion — it would be valuable to your wife’s well-being if you took care of the overnight feeding and you let her get five hours of uninterrupted sleep,” Homitsky says. “We offer to incorporate partners, grandparents, other relatives.”
 



 

Other times they use role-play to help women communicate what they need to family members. “We are talking about day-to-day things,” Homitsky says.
Many women benefit from group discussions with other women going through the same kind of pain.

Though model and television host Chrissy Teigen recently revealed that she was so overwhelmed by postpartum depression that she could barely leave the house, many new mothers keep it a secret, increasing their feelings of isolation and despair.

“It is incredibly valuable to have other women provide validation,” Homitsky says. In fact, graduates of the six- to eight-week program often cite the group sessions as the most valuable component in their feedback. “They can relate to other patients’ stories. Peer mentorship is really important.

“Treatment really does work,” Homitsky says. Unfortunately, she adds, only 6 percent of women diagnosed with postpartum depression will receive adequate treatment; only 16 percent will even initiate it.  

The risks of leaving postpartum depression without treatment are high, including the potential for harmful effects on the baby’s ability to grow and hit cognitive milestones.

To get more women the treatment they need, Allegheny Health Network medical practices screen women for depression and bipolar disorder three times — from pregnancy through delivery and after birth. Depression during pregnancy is a strong indicator that a woman is at higher risk for postpartum depression. Those who show signs of depression can be connected immediately with a health care professional and sometimes are candidates for the Intensive Outpatient Program.

For Benacquista, the therapy at West Penn has made all of the difference, and she has referred other new mothers to the program.

Daphne is thriving, too. On a recent visit, her pediatrician said she is hitting all of her milestones.

“And you haven’t been calling me anymore on Saturday nights,” the doctor says.  

​Benacquista nodded her head. “I feel so much better.”
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Best Restaurants 2017

Best Restaurants 2017

This year Pittsburgh Magazine's independent Restaurant Review Panel recognizes 34 establishments as our regions's top restaurants. Our list includes All Arounders, Killer Casual, Fancy Night Out, Best Budget and Classic Comfort establishments.
Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller’s portfolio includes overseeing five specialty restaurants — Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar, Soba, umi and Kaya — as well as 14 fast-casual Mad Mex restaurants and a full-service catering operation. Even in an increasingly competitive environment, his restaurants remain in-demand and relevant.
Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Apteka, operated by Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, is a vegan eatery that draws on Lasky’s sixth-generation Pittsburgh roots and Skowronski’s Polish heritage.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference Helps Writers Tell Their Stories

Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference Helps Writers Tell Their Stories

The fifth annual Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference brings writers from across the country together to improve their craft.
Watch: Radio-Synced Highlights of Pens 7-0 Win in Game 5

Watch: Radio-Synced Highlights of Pens 7-0 Win in Game 5

Nothing beats listening to Mike Lange describe a Penguins' goal.
Break It Down: Byham Theater

Break It Down: Byham Theater

When you walk into the Sixth Street entryway of the Byham Theater, Downtown, you will see patches of green and black tile on the walls: These are originals from the early 20th century, says John Mumper, facilities manager at the Byham. The grand theater has plenty of history to go with its 100-plus years; let’s break it down.
 Wiz Khalifa to Headline Thrival 2017

Wiz Khalifa to Headline Thrival 2017

It’s the first time a Pittsburgh artist is headlining the annual innovation and music festival.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Best Restaurants 2017

Best Restaurants 2017

This year Pittsburgh Magazine's independent Restaurant Review Panel recognizes 34 establishments as our regions's top restaurants. Our list includes All Arounders, Killer Casual, Fancy Night Out, Best Budget and Classic Comfort establishments.
Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller’s portfolio includes overseeing five specialty restaurants — Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar, Soba, umi and Kaya — as well as 14 fast-casual Mad Mex restaurants and a full-service catering operation. Even in an increasingly competitive environment, his restaurants remain in-demand and relevant.
Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Apteka, operated by Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, is a vegan eatery that draws on Lasky’s sixth-generation Pittsburgh roots and Skowronski’s Polish heritage.
Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?

Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?

A small group of dedicated residents sees the restoration of their church in Tarentum as a window to the potential rebirth of their once-booming community in suburban Pittsburgh.
Remembering Henry Hillman

Remembering Henry Hillman

Reflecting on the impact of the businessman, civic visionary and philanthropist.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference Helps Writers Tell Their Stories

Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference Helps Writers Tell Their Stories

The fifth annual Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference brings writers from across the country together to improve their craft.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Station's Hours Expand and Le Lyonnais Opens Downtown

Station's Hours Expand and Le Lyonnais Opens Downtown

Station, the excellent Bloomfield eatery, now offers lunch service. The Big Y Group opens a French bistro in the space previously occupied by Sonoma Grille.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


Vital Happy Hour Alert: Great Cocktails at the Wigle Tasting Room

Vital Happy Hour Alert: Great Cocktails at the Wigle Tasting Room

The third outpost of local distillery Wigle, found in the Omni William Penn Hotel, is an instant destination for cocktail fans.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Time Running Out for Penguins to Respond to Senators

Time Running Out for Penguins to Respond to Senators

The Penguins suddenly have a lot to sort out as they attempt to respond to another disappointing playoff loss.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Pittsburgh on a Plate

Pittsburgh on a Plate

The way to a beer lover’s heart is mapped out on notNeutral’s plate, which highlights Pittsburgh breweries (and other points of interest) across the city.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The Alien Series Jumps the Shark with Covenant

The Alien Series Jumps the Shark with Covenant

Reviews of "Alien: Covenant" and "Everything, Everything," as well as local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
New York Bridal Designer Shares Her Secrets

New York Bridal Designer Shares Her Secrets

Pennsylvania native Jaclyn Jordan brings her newest collection to the Blanc de Blanc Bridal Boutique in Carrick.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Get to the North Side for Home & Garden Tour, Epic Yard Sale

Get to the North Side for Home & Garden Tour, Epic Yard Sale

Explore lavish homes and gardens with the West Allegheny Historic District’s annual Tour and Tasting, or go on the hunt for hidden treasure during The Great Mexican War Streets Yard Sale.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Explore Your Future with Point Park University

Explore Your Future with Point Park University

The university will host three summer workshops for high school students from July 17-20.

Comments