A Case of Hysteria

Baby Blues

A century ago, a new mother suffering from anxiety, irritability, sadness, low energy, or crying episodes could be diagnosed with hysteria and forced to visit a mental hygiene clinic. Today, women are regularly screened for postpartum or postnatal depression (PPD) now that the medical field is more aware of the profound biological and lifestyle changes brought about by caring for an infant. The much rarer diagnosis of postpartum psychosis presents in the first two weeks after childbirth with symptoms that include confusion, delusions, depression, hallucinations, loss of inhibition, and paranoia. In the 1950s and 1960s, pharmaceutical companies targeted housewives and mothers with new drugs, like Miltown, which helped them cope with the everyday stresses of life. In Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Mother’s Bodies, Rebecca Kukla takes a look at modern medical practices and cultural norms surrounding pregnancy, new motherhood, and breastfeeding. Toni Morrison’s tragic novel Beloved examines one mother’s struggle with post-traumatic stress through the horrifying lens of slavery. Today PPD is treated through counseling, antidepressants, or hormone therapy although the lack of a formal diagnostic procedure continues to hinder research.

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