In the first effort of its kind by any faith group in the state, the New Jersey Catholic Conference (NJCC) 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 (PPD).
At the press conference, held in Newark May 25 in the Archdiocesan Center, Archbishop John J. 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 PPD survivor Mary Jo Codey-the wife of N.J. Senate President Richard J. Codey (D).
According to estimates, PPD annually affects 11,000 to 16,000 women in New Jersey. 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. The great fear is that, as a result of the depression, women may do harm to their babies or themselves. 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 (242 10th St., Jersey City, 07302, (201) 876-8900), the lead-planning agency for maternal and child health services in Hudson County under license from the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, said she is grateful for the efforts of the Church to address this issue.
"We hear stories all the time; someone knows somebody with this illness," Moore said. "It is important that this initiative was started and I approach it with joy and enthusiasm."
Along with printing flyers to insert in parish bulletins, the training for priests, deacons and pastoral associates will include information about the signs and symptoms of PPD and resources for referring mothers to treatment.
"It makes sense to pair up with the Church," Moore explained. "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. Women can recover from this. We see this (initiative) reaching leaders in all religions."
Senator Codey and Mary Jo Codey have been instrumental in raising awareness on PPD, according to Patrick R. Brannigan, executive director of the Trenton-based NJCC. He declared that, due to their efforts, fighting the illness through education has come to the forefront in the state.
"This (initiative) is clearly historic," Brannigan continued. "PPD is not just a woman's issue; it is a family issue. There is a domino affect when the depression happens and the whole family is involved."
Brannigan said Mary Jo Codey-a leading advocate for PPD education in New Jersey-is an "inspiration to the nation. Her drive to spread the word about maternal depression has saved the lives of many women and their children."
"Twenty-three years ago, I had no idea what PPD was," Codey confessed. "It took me to the brink of suicide and I underwent 11 rounds of shock therapy. It is unfair to be uneducated."
Even though she survived breast cancer, Codey said her bout with PPD was the toughest thing she ever has had to endure. "Maternal depression strikes when you are supposed to be overjoyed," she said. "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."
Sylvia Lasalandra, author and filmmaker of "Daughter's Touch," is also a PPD survivor who used her horrific experiences with the illness to inform other women and families. After the birth of her daughter Melina, Lasalandra said 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 said. "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."
Lasalandra has since made a full recovery through therapy and the support of her family. Her daughter is now six years old.
"There is a horrible stigma about PPD," she said. "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."
Catherine Furlani, director of the archdiocesan office of Human Concerns, has been designated as the coordinator of activities for PPD education in the Archdiocese of Newark. A training session for priests, deacons and pastoral associates on warning signs of maternal depression is slated for June 28 at the Archdiocesan Center.