Friday, July 18, 2008

Shining a light after tragedy follows birth

Post-partum mental illnesses gain focus

Sunday, June 22, 2008


News staff writer

Christmas wreaths hung on the front of the historic Avondale home and tree lights twinkled through a front window in mid-December, giving no sign of the tragedy that would occur.

Likewise, the beautiful and normally buoyant Jenny Gibbs Bankston gave few clues of the post-partum illness tormenting her.

On Dec. 19, shortly after 7 p.m., her husband, Chip, came home and found his wife and their 7-week-old son, Graham, in the backyard, fatally shot. Only then did Jenny Bankston's family realize that the 33-year-old, first-time mother had been in the grips of a serious illness that caused her to take her son's life and then her own.

It's something her loved ones say they could have never imagined. Bankston's mother had just talked to her daughter an hour and a half before. Jenny talked about getting ready for Christmas and how cute the baby was. She did not reveal that she had been to a sporting goods store earlier in the day and purchased a gun.

"It was completely out of the blue," her fraternal twin sister, Becky Lavelle, said in a recorded interview with Endurance Planet, an Internet-based news source for athletes. "She was just so positive and outgoing and upbeat, caring, creative ... really the complete opposite when you think of a depressed person."

Almost immediately after the deaths, Bankston's family decided to create a nonprofit organization, Jenny's Light, to raise awareness about perinatal mood disorders - depression, psychosis and other mental problems that develop during pregnancy and up to one year after childbirth. The goal is to help other suffering mothers move out of darkness and into light.

"It gave us a cause to try to make something good out of something tragic," said Jenny's mother, Sandy Gibbs of Minneapolis.

The first large fundraiser for Jenny's Light was Saturday. The golf tournament at Highland Park Golf Course raised more than $50,000, doubling what the nonprofit had previously raised.

Chip Bankston, who just completed his residency in orthopedic surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has difficulty talking about his wife and child. But he clearly was overcome by the support shown by the 112 golfers and a crew of volunteers who turned out for the event.

"A lot of friends loved Jenny a lot," he said.

Jenny and Chip Bankston met as college students at Louisiana State University and married in 2001. They moved to Birmingham in 2003 for his residency. Jenny Bankston went to work for Southern Living magazine. She worked until a month before Graham's birth, quitting to stay home with the baby.

"She wanted a baby in the worst way," her father, Bob Gibbs, said.

More than the blues:

Some form of the "baby blues" affects most women in the first few weeks after delivery.

But post-partum disorders - depression and psychosis - are different. They are clinical illnesses that must be treated, said Jesse Kuendig, a licensed social worker with expertise in perinatal mood disorders and a Jenny's Light board member.

The disorders often go undetected by family, friends and even treating physicians, Kuendig said. Many women feel guilty about their depression and hide it, she said. The myths of motherhood - that everything is instinctual, that you're supposed to feel only happiness - make many ashamed to admit they're struggling.

"It's supposed to be the happiest time of your life, and for many women it's not," Kuendig said. "Mental illness has a stigma and post-partum illnesses even more so. That makes it very, very hard for women to talk about the hard parts."

Jenny Bankston was having trouble with breastfeeding and lack of sleep, her parents said. Not working and being a stay-at-home mother was also an ajustment, they said. But they viewed those issues as normal, not troubling.

Post-partum depression affects about 15 percent of mothers in the first year after their baby's birth, she said.

That's much higher than gestational diabetes, which all mothers are tested for in their pregnancy, yet there is no universal screening of women for pregnancy-related mental illnesses, Kuendig said.

Through Jenny's Light, Bankston's family hopes to change that and is starting with grass-roots efforts in Birmingham, the Twin Cities' area and California, where her sister lives.

Causes, symptoms:

Kuendig said the baby blues are characterized by some crying, anxiety or sadness in the first few weeks after the baby is born, but the predominant mood is still happiness. The blues go away on their own.

With post-partum depression, however, the predominant mood is not happiness. A mother suffering from the depression has feelings of sadness, anxiety and worthlessness. She may seem to have lost pleasure in life, may not be able to sleep even when the baby is sleeping and may think of harming herself.

The depression often starts two to three weeks after delivery, although it can start anytime in the first year, and lasts for more than two weeks.

Changing hormone levels play a big role in the baby blues, but the causes are less certain in post-partum depression.

Big life changes during pregnancy, such as a move or quitting work, a family history of mood disorders, sleep deprivation, difficulty breastfeeding and lack of social support all are believed to be contributing factors, Kuendig said.

Less common is post-partum psychosis, which affects about 1 in 1,000 mothers. The onset can be as soon as three days to four weeks post-partum and can be sudden. Symptoms are paranoia, delusions, hallucinations and very disorganized behavior. Suicide and infanticide are a risk of the disorder, Kuendig said.

"Post-partum psychosis is considered a medical emergency, and a woman needs to go to the emergency department," she said.

The problem is psychosis can be disguised. A new mother may be psychotic one moment and seem fine the next. Risk factors for post-partum psychosis are a history of bipolar disorder and having had the illness before, in addition to the contributing factors of post-partum depression.

Treatable, if detected:

Bankston's parents said they believe their daughter had post-partum psychosis, but they will never know for sure. She had no prior history of mental illness.

A woman doesn't usually have a post-partum checkup with her obstetrician until six weeks after delivery. That's a long wait for a woman suffering with mental illness.

Kuendig said Jenny's Light wants to encourage pediatricians, who see the mothers sooner and much more frequently, to help with detection.

Supporters of Jenny's Light also want the charity to become a place women can turn for help.

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