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Postpartum Depression & Addiction

Hormone changes, family pressure, and stress can mount after a baby arrives, and some women develop postpartum depression. Some turn to substance abuse to ease their distress.

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Postpartum depression is a treatable medical condition. With the right therapies and support, women can get better and care for both themselves and their children. Substance abuse is also treatable, including cases where a woman’s drug use has become compulsive. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with postpartum depression, talk with a doctor immediately. Don’t let someone you know attempt to self-medicate with substances. Quick action can be lifesaving.

5 Key Statistics About Postpartum Depression & Addiction

Key Facts

What Is Postpartum Depression?

Having a baby is disruptive. It’s nearly impossible to be fully prepared for all the challenges of caring for a tiny human being. Most mothers feel out of sorts as they adjust to this new lifestyle. But women with postpartum depression have much more severe difficulties. 

Postpartum depression is a form of depression caused by the birth of a child. Women with this condition have more than simple “baby blues.” Instead, they have a clinically significant mental health concern that keeps them from caring for themselves, their babies, or both.

Why Do People Get Postpartum Depression?

Any woman with a new child can develop postpartum depression. Like most mental health conditions, this form of depression doesn’t discriminate by race, class, or location. The disruption associated with a new baby is often enough to cause the problem to develop.

Some factors make postpartum depression more likely, such as these:

Difficult History 

Researchers say women who have experienced interpersonal violence or partner substance abuse are more likely to develop postpartum depression than women who don’t have this history. 

A woman isn’t responsible for the events that happened to her as a child or member of a difficult relationship. But these experiences can reverberate, making her postpartum period more dangerous.

Substance Abuse 

Researchers also say women who experienced six or more stressful life events before the baby was born are more likely to abuse substances. 

Some substances (like opioids) can alter brain chemistry, reducing the natural ability to produce brain-boosting chemicals. Women who abuse substances can develop depression as a result, or their substances can make existing depression more severe.

Baby’s Traits 

For some women, postpartum depression impacts a baby in ways that make depression more significant.

Researchers say women with depression struggle to bond with their babies, contributing to sleeping and feeding problems. Babies like this fuss, struggle, and rarely sleep through the night. 

A lack of sleep and worries about parenting are known risk factors for postpartum depression. A woman may feel slightly depressed, struggle with her baby, and find her baby harder and harder to calm. This cycle can worsen her depression symptoms. 

What Are Postpartum Depression Symptoms?

Rapid hormone changes after a baby’s birth can cause emotional difficulties in any woman. Tearfulness, sadness, and anxiety are all common in the postpartum period. Postpartum depression causes much stronger symptoms.

Women with postpartum depression can develop the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Trouble remembering or focusing 
  • Little interest in things that were once enjoyed
  • Restlessness or agitation 
  • Thoughts of hurting themselves or their babies 
  • Overly concerned about the baby’s health or not feeling attached to the baby’s health at all 
  • Sadness, including frequent crying

Some women develop physical symptoms during postpartum depression, such as the following:

  • Headaches
  • Chest pain
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • Tingling hands or feet 

While all women should be asked about their mental health during their after-baby checkups, many are not. Women with physical symptoms may get help for the wrong issues (such as high blood pressure) without addressing their underlying mental health issue.

How Long Does Postpartum Depression Last?

Every woman is different. Some women feel better within a few weeks of rest, community support, medications, and good nutrition. They feel much better as their hormone levels adjust and their babies settle into a routine.

But other women attempt to treat their poor mental health alone using harmful techniques, including self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Women like this may struggle with their mental health for months or even years.

Why Does Postpartum Depression Lead to Addiction?

While anyone can develop postpartum depression, not all women develop simultaneous addictions. But some certainly do. 

While postpartum depression is common, it’s also stigmatized. Many women won’t talk to their doctors or family members about their thoughts and feelings, as they worry they’ll be seen as “bad mothers” and/or lose custody of their children. 

When a woman feels lost and depressed, and she feels no one can hear her or will listen to her, she may turn to drugs and alcohol for relief.

This form of self-medication may seem preferable, as it doesn’t require her to discuss her mental health with anyone. 

Some women also develop addiction with postpartum depression after using substances during pregnancy. While alcohol, opioids, and many other drugs can cross through the placenta during pregnancy and harm a baby, these substances are very hard to quit. 

Some people keep using substances throughout their pregnancy, and when the baby is born, their use intensifies. The consequences can be devastating. 

Researchers tracked women with opioid addictions for two years: one before pregnancy and one after the birth. While overdose deaths declined during pregnancy, they peaked in the 7 to 12 months that followed the birth

Women with addictions may resist entering treatment due to concerns about their children. They may believe admitting to a problem automatically means losing custody. But their continued drug use could cost them their lives.

What Are the Top Substances Abused?

Women with postpartum depression can reach for any substance they can find, and often, they develop addictions to substances readily available within their homes. 

In studies of the issue, researchers suggest that alcohol is the most abused substance by women in the postpartum period. Many American homes stock beer, wine, and hard liquor. A woman struggling with a new baby could spend all day drinking and never have to break the law or contact a dealer. 

But studies of overdose deaths suggest that women in the postpartum period abuse other substances, such as these:

  • Benzodiazepines 
  • Heroin 
  • Opioids 

These drugs are incredibly dangerous, as they’re often contaminated. Researchers say overdoses in postpartum women spiked in 2020 due to drugs contaminated with the opioid fentanyl. This very strong opioid is odorless, tasteless, and colorless. It’s also remarkably strong. A tiny dose could be enough to overwhelm the central nervous system and cause an overdose in seconds.

Support Resources for Mothers With Postpartum Depression 

All women deserve care and compassion after they give birth. Women with postpartum depression have several options available, including the following:

Community Support

Women with postpartum depression benefit from a three-tiered support system that consists of the following elements:

  • Emotional support: Showing concern and providing encouragement is critical. 
  • Instrumental support: Offering time, money, and other forms of tangible assistance can be vital for struggling moms. 
  • Informational support: Giving a woman advice, education, and knowledge could be critical during this vulnerable time. 

Some women get this help from their families, including their mothers and sisters. Others tap into their church community, or they connect with local resources.

National Support

Organizations like Postpartum Support International are designed to help women with postpartum depression to get better. Any woman who needs this help can call 1-800-944-4773 to get connected with a trained volunteer. 

Medical Support

A woman struggling with postpartum depression can discuss her thoughts, feelings, and challenges with her doctor. If she’s uncomfortable speaking directly with her doctor, she can ask a friend, family member, or relative to come with her to give her courage and encouragement.

Treatment Help for Mothers

While discussing feelings and asking for help is important, women with postpartum depression and addiction often need more help. Treatment programs that are made for mothers can help a great deal. 

Treatment programs work best when customized to a woman’s lifestyle, preferences, and history. These elements could be included in a treatment program:


Postpartum depression often responds to antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Multiple types of medications exist, and it can take some trial and error to find the one that’s right for a woman’s chemistry. But many women get relief with these therapies. 

But addictions often require a different type of medication. For example, women using opioids like Vicodin and heroin can have lasting brain chemical changes caused by addiction, making quitting use of opioids very difficult. 

Their chemical changes result in deep cravings that are hard to ignore. Therapies with buprenorphine may help a great deal.


While medications can help to address chemical imbalances, women with postpartum depression and addiction also benefit from discussing their difficulties in structured therapy programs. 

Two types of therapy are closely associated with recovery:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of therapy is made to help you change the way you think and how you react to difficult thoughts. When you can change the way you think, you can stop reacting to difficult thoughts by taking drugs. 
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT): This form of therapy is intended to fix difficult relationships. A woman struggling with her partner, parents, or siblings could use this therapy to form tight connections that can support them throughout motherhood. 

Some women benefit from other forms of therapy during addiction treatment. And some women use multiple forms to get better.

Adjunctive Therapies

Many women benefit from additional therapies to help them express their creativity, find peace, and settle their minds. The techniques they learn in treatment could be used for the rest of their lives. 

Therapies include the following:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation 
  • Art therapy
  • Music therapy 

Women enrolled in formal treatment programs are often introduced to these concepts during the course of their care.

How to Get Started With Customized Care

Postpartum depression is isolating, and many women with the condition worry about telling their families about their struggles. If you have symptoms, find someone you trust and start slowly. Talk about your symptoms as much as you can and be as open as possible. 

If someone else has postpartum depression, offer your support persistently. Keep reaching out and talking. Even if it doesn’t seem like you’re making progress, your conversations could change a life.

Many treatment programs are equipped to address both postpartum depression and addiction. With a customized care plan, clients can successfully manage both conditions. This can allow them to build the foundation of a healthy and rewarding life in recovery where they can effectively care for both their own health and their baby.

Updated March 7, 2024
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