Breaking the stigma

Breaking the stigma

Discussion in Teaneck to center on postpartum depression

Rabbi Daniel Fridman, left, and Marilyn Laves
Rabbi Daniel Fridman, left, and Marilyn Laves

Arona Berow is a licensed social worker living in Washington Heights, right across the George Washington Bridge from Bergen County.

She’s also a young mother who experienced postpartum depression. As part of her mission to destigmatize and normalize mental-health issues, she will tell her story at a program hosted by the Jewish Center of Teaneck next Sunday titled “Postpartum Depression: Raising Awareness and Breaking the Stigma.”

Teaneck native Marilyn Laves, a Manhattan-based licensed clinical social worker who has been speaking at area synagogues to raise awareness of the symptoms and treatments for pregnancy-related emotional issues including perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, also will speak that evening.

“Perinatal” refers to the period ranging from pregnancy to up to one year after birth. Like most of us, Ms. Laves did not know that overwhelming anxiety and obsessive behaviors can strike even during pregnancy, but she found out some 20 years ago when her own sister experienced perinatal depression shortly before her baby was born.

“At the time, I was just starting out in my profession and I reached out to anybody I could think of, but no one could help us for a long time so that became my mission,” Ms. Laves said.

“The birth of a baby is supposed to be a time of joy and anticipation,” she continued. “People are ashamed and embarrassed when they feel depressed. I want to educate people to recognize the signs, ask the right questions, know where to reach out, and what we can do as a community.”

Ms. Laves said some people are more predisposed to perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, which also can strike new fathers. Someone with prior mental health issues, prior experience with anxiety or depression during pregnancy, or a history of infertility, miscarriage, or traumatic pregnancy or childbirth, is more likely to be affected.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, postpartum depression affects one out of nine women. “Postpartum depression is different than the common ‘baby blues’ that happen in 60 to 80 percent of new parents at a time when they are overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed out,” Ms. Laves emphasized. “But if it goes on longer and the new mother has lost interest in life or feels helpless and worthless, that’s more serious and something to pay attention to.”

She explained that dramatic fluctuations in hormonal levels are responsible for the mood swings associated with the perinatal period.

“Hormones, particularly estrogen and progesterone, are responsible for changes during pregnancy and impact your ability to regulate your mood. After delivery, the sudden drop in those hormone levels can cause baby blues. Breastfeeding produces the hormone oxytocin, and while many women have a positive reaction to that hormone, others experience a very agitated state, where nursing can make them depressed. Some women experience mood swings during and after weaning from the drop in oxytocin.”

Ms. Laves said that she always involves husbands and partners in her clinical work. “They’re my ‘eyes’ and they need to know what to look for. It can be very scary for them,” she said.

When speaking with groups, Ms. Laves assures listeners that perinatal depression and anxiety disorders can be treated by medications prescribed by a reproductive psychiatrist or by practices such as acupuncture, meditation, and mindfulness.

“A lot of my work provides support and deals with normalizing feelings and encouraging a mother’s engagement with and attachment to the baby,” she said.

Ms. Laves does not believe perinatal depression is any more prevalent in the Jewish community than elsewhere. However, she says, “The stigma around mental health is stronger in all religious communities, and in the Jewish community there is a lot of joy and ritual around having a child but not a lot of conversation or awareness about postpartum depression. People don’t know if it’s okay to talk about.”

Daniel Fridman, the rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, concurred.

“As we continue to fight the stigmas associated with mental illness, we are acutely aware that postpartum depression is particularly insidious, in so far as the outsider naturally expects the new mother to be filled with joy and happiness,” Rabbi Fridman said.

“This sense of a potential gap between communal expectations and the pain that the mother may be suffering is exacerbated in the Jewish community, where such an emphasis is placed on family, and rightly so, and the joy of either becoming a parent for the first time, or enlarging a family, becomes a communal celebration.

“And so we have a unique responsibility, within our community, to address these issues, to raise awareness and sensitivity in the community at large regarding what a certain percentage of new mothers are experiencing.

“Most importantly, we have a responsibility to the mothers and couples themselves to provide support, to make resources available, and to fight against this most pernicious stigma,” Rabbi Fridman said.

“I’m thrilled that Marilyn Laves, who grew up in the shul, is coming back to lend her expertise to this vital cause. As a community, we will not be satisfied until someone with mental illness of any kind is treated no differently than someone who may be struggling with any physical malady.”

The Teaneck Baby Gemach, a local Jewish lending service for baby gear and formula headed by Ginnine Fried, is one of the evening’s sponsors.

“We feel that bringing further awareness to postpartum depression is a critical component of our mission statement, as the condition is more common than one might think,” Ms. Fried said. “It’s very important to distinguish between someone who is overwhelmed with motherhood and someone who might have a deeper problem. We are proud to be an organization that serves men as equally as women, and would like to increase the awareness that men have over this serious condition.”

Rabbi Fridman said the event is part of a broader movement gaining steam in Teaneck over the past couple of years.

“We’re seeing, thank God, much more attention paid to mental illness,” he said. “I want to acknowledge the crucial work done by two of my colleagues in particular in this respect: Rabbi Ari Zahtz of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun for his work with Project Ometz, helping families raising children struggling with mental illness, and Rabbi Larry Rothwachs of Congregation Beth Aaron for his work with Amudim, combating diseases associated with substance abuse.”

Rabbi Fridman sees this trend as no less than fulfilling the mitzvah of imitatio dei, imitating the Divine. “The Psalmist described the Almighty as ‘healer of those with broken hearts, binder of their wounds,’” he said. (Psalms 147:3). “We must act in accordance with the Almighty’s example.”

Ms. Laves suggests that teachers of marriage classes for religious brides and grooms consider adding information about perinatal depression to their curriculum, and that mikvah attendants offer resources on this issue as they do on domestic violence. At the talk on Sunday, she will distribute such resources, including numbers for hotlines and “warm lines.”

“The more people know, the more chance they have to be happy parents,” said Ms. Laves.

What: “Postpartum Depression: Raising Awareness & Breaking the Stigma”

Where: Teaneck Jewish Center, 70 Sterling Place

When: Sunday July 15, at 7 p.m.

For more information: Call (201) 833-0515, email, or go to

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