A new documentary dives into the difficult subject of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. Narrated and produced by Brooke Shields, When The Bough Breaks (available for streaming on iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, and elsewhere) is a look into the pain, social stigma, and treatment options for these debilitating mental health conditions.
The film’s purpose is to get women to talk about the symptoms they may be experiencing before it’s too late. The documentary follows a woman, Lindsay, who was diagnosed in childhood with a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Her symptoms became more severe after the birth of her first child six years prior, and she has been seeking treatment ever since. The film lets us see how her relationship with her husband has been affected, how she struggles to get through her daily routine, and how she’s been helped by making her story public.
In one affecting scene, Lindsay’s husband is caught off guard when asked how Lindsay’s depression has changed life for him. Having been so focused on her well-being, he’d never even considered what he was going through.
The film gets terribly difficult to watch when the filmmakers interview several mothers who, during psychotic episodes, committed infanticide. Other families discussed how they have been affected by murder and suicide.
Women who commit infanticide often have warning signs: They tend to have prior mental health conditions and don’t know where to turn for help. Many of the women interviewed speak of the guilt they feel for thinking the world would be better off without them, or that their baby would be better off not living in this world. Overwhelming feelings of inadequacy — “I should be Supermom!” — can lead new moms to hide their depression or psychotic thoughts. Several of the women spoke of a social stigma associated with these symptoms that further suppresses their drive to seek help.
The film distinguishes between postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. One in five mothers experience postpartum depression: a woman goes through such a roller coaster of body changes, hormonal changes, and emotional reactions to the anticipation of giving birth, and once the pregnancy is over, there can be a huge letdown. For some women, this period can cause acute symptoms of depression.
The film discusses the need for a strong support system. A contrast is drawn between American society, in which a mom typically expects to do everything perfectly by herself, and certain Asian cultures in which mothers are kept from any responsibilities for the first month after birth. Those cultures recognize that a new mother is healing from a major physiological event; tradition dictates a full moon cycle to make the adjustment after pregnancy.
Postpartum psychosis is a much more severe problem. The film documents the case of one mother who committed infanticide after having been, by all accounts, a great mother to her first two kids. A psychotic break caused her to see her third baby in a completely different way. Several other mothers who committed infanticide are also interviewed. They talk about hallucinations, memory loss, hearing voices, and other psychotic episodes that led them down that dark path. An important point throughout the movie is that, in general, women who suffer from this condition are incapable of making rational decisions about themselves and their babies. They suffer from a mental health condition that needs to be properly treated before it leads to the ultimate tragedy of murder, suicide, or both.
Brooke Shields has previously gone public about her bout with postpartum depression. Her 2005 book, Down Came The Rain, documented her struggle to overcome severe depression; she demonstrates in When The Bough Breaks that mothers are often the target of misguided criticism when they seek psychiatric help for their condition. The extreme example of Tom Cruise even appears in the film. Cruise criticized Shields for seeking psychiatric help and medications to control her symptoms. (Cruise is, of course, a Scientologist, and eschews all forms of mental health treatment — to his obvious detriment.) The film contends that criticism of seeking help is a major stumbling block, exacerbating many women’s instinct to hide their troubles.
When The Bough Breaks encourages women to open up and seek help if they are experiencing any signs of depression — or worse.