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Around 20% of women experience postnatal depression after childbirth. Photo: Pixabay

After childbirth, approximately one in five women experience postnatal depression, also known as postpartum depression, according to the National Library of Medicine.

This medical condition is often diagnosed when new mothers exhibit symptoms of extreme sadness, anxiety, or dejection following childbirth, as reported by the non-profit organization March of Dimes, which is dedicated to improving the health of mothers and babies.

Postnatal depression not only alters a new mother's emotional state but can also affect how she bonds with her newborn, according to March of Dimes. Traditionally, women have been prescribed antidepressants to improve their mental well-being. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the first-ever pill specifically designed to treat postnatal depression.

FDA Approval and Early Use

The FDA approved this groundbreaking pill, known as zuranolone, in August last year, but it has taken months for the supply to reach medical facilities across the United States. Dr. Misty Richards, a medical director of perinatal psychiatry at the Maternal Outpatient Mental Health Services Clinic at UCLA Health, was one of the first doctors to prescribe zuranolone to a new mother experiencing postnatal depression.

Dr. Richards described a patient who was severely affected by postnatal depression, with symptoms so debilitating that her husband had to take time off work to care for both her and their baby. "She wasn't taking showers. She wasn't eating," Richards said, explaining that the new mother did not respond to therapy and remained actively suicidal.

Impact of Postnatal Depression

In the first year after childbirth, the most common causes of fatalities among new mothers are drug overdoses, mental disorders, and suicide. Additionally, children born to parents suffering from postpartum depression are more likely to experience emotional or behavioral issues, developmental delays, and a higher risk of premature death before their first birthday.

Promising Results with Zuranolone

Upon prescribing zuranolone, Dr. Richards observed significant improvements in her patient within just three days. "She tells me she feels like she just woke up," Richards noted, adding that the patient did not report any side effects. "I truly feel like I'm meeting her for the first time. Her husband was in tears, super grateful. Just a major, grand slam success story — which, by the way, we don't tend to see in psychiatry."

Before the approval of zuranolone, the primary treatment for postnatal depression was an intravenous injection approved by the FDA in 2019. Although effective, this treatment carried risks of excessive sedation and sudden loss of consciousness.

Expert Opinions

After announcing the new oral medication, Tiffany Farchione, MD, the acting director of the Division of Psychiatry Products in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, emphasized the serious nature of postnatal depression: "Postpartum depression is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition in which women experience sadness, guilt, worthlessness—even, in severe cases, thoughts of harming themselves or their child. And, because postpartum depression can disrupt the maternal-infant bond, it can also have consequences for the child's physical and emotional development."

Farchione added, "Having access to an oral medication will be a beneficial option for many of these women coping with extreme, and sometimes life-threatening, feelings."