The Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act: An Interview with Mental Health Practitioner & Advocate Susan Dowd Stone
Susan Dowd Stone, MSW, LCSW is the current chair of the President’s Advisory Council of Postpartum Support International (PSI), a New Jersey HSS Certified Perinatal Mood Disorders Instructor, an adjunct lecturer at The Silver School of Social Work, New York University and a public reviewer for The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). She is the author of Perinatal and Postpartum Mood Disorders: Perspectives and Treatment Guide for the Health Care Practitioner (Springer, 2008) and is a speaker and legislative advocate on issues related to women’s reproductive mental health. Ms. Stone is also a therapist with a private practice in Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
Q. What is The Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act?
A. The Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act, or MBSMA, is federal legislation which seeks to address the public health crisis of untreated maternal depression in the United States. It aims to fund public awareness campaigns, services, education and research. Currently, the bill, S 324, sits in the Health Education Labor and Pension Committee, awaiting mark up before moving to the Senate floor for a vote. The bill passed in the US House of Representatives in March 2009 with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Q. What would the Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act do, if passed?
A. This legislation would increase federal efforts to combat postpartum depression by 1) Encouraging Health and Human Services (HHS) to coordinate and continue research to expand the understanding of the causes of, and find treatments for, postpartum conditions; 2) Encouraging a National Public Awareness Campaign, to be administered by HHS, to increase awareness and knowledge of postpartum depression and psychosis; 3) Requiring the Secretary of HHS to conduct a study on the benefits of screening for postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis; and 4) Creating a grant program to public or nonprofit private entities to deliver or enhance outpatient, inpatient and home-based health and support services, including case management and comprehensive treatment services for individuals with or at risk for postpartum conditions.
Activities may also include providing education about postpartum conditions to new mothers and their families, including symptoms, methods of coping with the illness, and treatment resources, in order to promote earlier diagnosis and treatment.
Q. Who was Melanie Blocker Stokes, and how did this legislation come to be named for her?
A. Melanie Blocker Stokes was a successful and beautiful Chicago native who developed postpartum psychosis after the birth of her daughter, Sommer Skye. Despite frantic family efforts to seek help and obtain treatment from multiple sources, she ultimately leapt to her death from a Chicago hotel room window. Melanie’s mother, Carol Blocker joined forces with Congressman Bobby L. Rush to initiate legislation determined to end the ignorance around these disorders and to spare other mothers, children and families from the same tragic outcome. Congressman Rush and Carol Blocker intend to continue their advocacy efforts until the bill is passed in the US Senate. More about Melanie’s story can be found at www.melaniesbattle.org.
Q. Why is there a need for this legislation, and at the federal level?
A. Up to 20% of new mothers – approximately 800,000 American women – will develop a perinatal mood disorder this year. The consequences of untreated maternal depression range from chronic disabling symptoms to death for the mother, the possibility of long term behavioral and cognitive for the infant, and devastation for the family. The causes of postpartum depression and other perinatal mood disorders aren’t yet fully understood, but possible factors include changes in hormone levels, a difficult pregnancy or birth, and a family history of depression. We need federal legislation in order to make critical services available as a matter of course to ALL mothers, regardless of where they live, what their economic circumstances are, and in spite of disparities in access to healthcare services. Only a federal mandate can accomplish this goal and ensure that programs and services at the state level will be available to all families.
Q. Who are the supporters of the Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act?
A. The bill’s Senate sponsors are Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL). Former Sen. Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to sign on to the legislation, and Sen.Edward Kennedy, Chair of the H.E.L.P. committee is another ardent sponsor of this lifesaving legislation. Two petitions being circulated have generated thousands of constituent signatures from private citizens throughout the US. Additionally, the following groups, who represent millions of Americans, have endorsed the bill:
American College of Nurse Midwives
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
American Psychological Association
American Psychiatric Association
Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs
Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses
Children’s Defense Fund
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
Family Mental Health Foundation
The Jennifer Mudd Houghtaling Foundation
Kristin Brooks Hope Center
March of Dimes
Melanie Blocker Stokes Foundation
Mental Health America
NARAL, Pro-Choice America
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Association of Certified Professional Midwives
National Association of Social Workers
National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare
National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition (HMHB)
National Organization for Women
National Partnership for Women & Families
National Women’s Law Center
North American Society for Psychosocial Obstetrics and Gynecology
OWL- The Voice of Midlife and Older Women
Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Postpartum Support International
Suicide Prevention Action Network USA
Q. What challenges have PSI and other advocates of this legislation faced along the way?
A. Fighting for healthcare dollars is never easy, and the stigma of mental health issues further impedes progress. Some of the myths of motherhood in American culture make it difficult for new mothers to acknowledge what they are experiencing, as shame becomes a barrier to treatment. However, PSI’s efforts to promote awareness of postpartum depression at the national level was greatly advanced with the help of CBS Cares, who partnered with Postpartum Support International (PSI) to donate millions of primetime television air dollars in public service announcements about postpartum depression with the message to mothers, “You are not alone, you are not to blame and with help, you will be well.”
One legislator criticized the legislation as “disease specific”, citing that it was addressed by others in the healthcare system. This simply isn’t accurate, or we wouldn’t have been able to engage the nation’s most respected authorities on health in this movement for change. The momentum we have gained is, sadly, because parents, professionals and many policymakers know that hundreds of thousands of women and families continue to suffer the devastating effects of these illnesses because of ignorance, lack of available services and awareness.”
Others have attempted to promote their agenda by presenting the bill as one dominated by pharmacological interests. These groups have suggested that the bill could force medication and screening on new mothers and hinted at involvement by individuals with implication of secondary gains. Again, this is is simply an inaccurate statement, as reading the bill makes it clear it does NOT mandate screening or medication.
Its’ disturbing that these misrepresentations only further shame and separate women from the full spectrum of services and treatments that the bill supports and which they desperately need.
We encourage anyone with any such doubts about the legislation to read the bill. The enormous bipartisan support of nationally recognized and respected professional and lay organizations represent the majority who understand this bill is long overdue and will end needless suffering and save lives.
Q. What can HMHB’s partners and friends in maternal-child health do?
A. There are three things you can do right now:
- Contact members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee and ask them to support S 324.
- Call your US Senator and ask for his/her support of the Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act.