What women experience mentally during and immediately following pregnancy can have dramatic impacts on them, their families and society.
To lessen those impacts, Lauren DePaola three years ago founded the Alachua County Perinatal Mental Health Coalition.
"I founded the coalition after experiencing reproductive mental health disorders myself," said DePaola, a licensed clinical social worker.
Perinatal refers to the period around birth from five months before to a month after.
DePaola said after giving birth to her child, she realized there weren’t any services for women suffering from postpartum depression in Alachua County or the state, and had to get treatment from outside the state.
She formed the coalition in 2015 to boost awareness about perinatal mental health disorders and conducted surveys on the issue from 2016 to 2017 to obtain data, which the group published about a year ago. Since the release of the report, more attention is being paid to the issue, DePaola said.
To continue that quest, the coalition will host the inaugural Mom Prom from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday at the Senior Recreation Center, 5701 NW 34th Blvd. Tickets cost $50 and benefit the nonprofit coalition’s All Bottoms Covered Diaper Bank.
It will be for those 21 and older, and features food, music, dancing and five mothers will be recognized for their efforts to make a difference in the community.
The coalition and its report were mentioned by state legislators in this year’s legislative session during debate about the Florida Families First Act, DePaola said.
Hospital and emergency service professionals receive little or no training on treating people with perinatal mental health disorders, and the coalition hopes that health professionals will begin to act on the group's recommendations, DePaola said.
Chief among them: More and better screening of pregnant women and mothers of newborns, DePaola said.
Under one such new program that was set to begin in March, registered nurses from UF Health Shands Home Care team, Nursecore of Gainesville, a national home care services and medical staffing company, and licensed midwives with the Florida School of Traditional Midwifery, were to begin making one-time home visits to mothers of newborns within seven days of leaving the hospital to assess the infants' and mothers' emotional stability, health and social support.
The NewboRN Home Visiting Program is funded with a $400,000 grant from Alachua County taxpayers.
Perinatal mental illnesses affect up to 1 in 5 women, making it the leading health complication during and after pregnancy, DePaola said.
"The mental health of parents is the foundation of health in families and communities," DePaola said.
Perinatal mood disorders that go undiagnosed and untreated may lead to child abuse and neglect, divorce, infanticide, which is part of postpartum psychosis, homicide, suicide, to name a few, and has a two-generation annual financial burden of $12.6 million in Alachua County, according to the report.
Factored into that financial burden for mothers is a lack of productivity, work absenteeism, increased use of emergency services and for children, increased behavioral, educational and medical costs, and projected increased costs over a lifetime for emergency services, potential productivity loss and other factors, the report said.
Like most mental health issues, perinatal mood disorders are stigmatized and some don’t want to acknowledge they exist. Unlike physical illnesses that people readily seek treatment for, they are reluctant to do the same, or even talk about, mental illnesses, DePaloa said.
Awareness about perinatal mood disorders has grown in Alachua County since the coalition was formed, and at least one health care provider has begun screening for the disorder.
Patients at Comprehensive Women's Health, formerly North Florida Women's Physicians, a private practice in Gainesville, have received one to two screenings during their pregnancies and at least one after their pregnancies, said Barbara Woodmansee, the practice's clinical director.
Patients are referred to counseling if the screenings reveal they are at risk or have perinatal mood disoders, Woodmansee said.
"We have been doing the screenings for more than a year and jumped right on it when we were approached by the coalition," she said. "So many of our patients are affected by this. The screenings do work and we are treating our patients proactively, instead of after a traumatic experience occurs. We are working to demystify the stigma about perinatal mood disorders."
Tickets to the prom can be purchased at www.acpmhc.com or by calling 352-888-4932.
Editor's note: The online version of this story has been changed to correct the estimated number of women affected by perinatal mental issues.