Sunday, April 14, 2024

Face Time: Jennifer Silliman

 A maternal mental health advocate explores the “Dark Side of the Full Moon.”

When a child-birth class in Jupiter invited Jennifer Silliman to speak last year, the crusader for maternal mental health issues made sure to share her talking points prior to the presentation. But that night, as she started listing various risk factors for postpartum depression—among them, a family history with mental illness, a traumatic pregnancy, stress—the event coordinator “freaked out.”

And Silliman was escorted out of the class.

“I told the woman, ‘What a disservice you’re doing to these women and families,’” Silliman says. “This is the biggest issue. Not one institution owns maternal mental health. OBs. Pediatricians. Child-birth educators. … No one wants to ‘put ideas in Mommy’s head.’

“But the best thing you can do is talk about it. That’s how the healing process begins.”

Fortunately, for the estimated 1.3 million women this year who will suffer crippling postpartum symptoms, Silliman is talking, advocating—and making a difference—on their behalf.

Earlier this year, the 75-minute documentary “Dark Side of the Full Moon,” a project directed by Maureen Fura and co-produced by Silliman, began generating buzz in the maternal mental health community. It’s the first U.S. film that not only explores the debilitating side of postpartum issues but that sheds light on a health-care system that too often drops the ball when it comes to educating expectant and recent mothers.

For Silliman, a Wellington resident with a background in broadcasting and production coordination, the subject is a personal one. In the final trimester before she and husband William welcomed their now-5-year-old daughter, Allyson, into the world, Silliman began suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. A simple screening exam would have revealed—given her obsessive-compulsive tendencies and her mother’s bipolar issues—that she was at risk for pre- or postpartum issues.

Instead of opening up, she remained silent. Meanwhile, her mind started racing.

“I started having [what was later diagnosed as] intrusive thoughts, really more like flashes, about stabbing myself in the stomach—while I was pregnant,” Silliman says. “Because of my OCD, I obsessed over this. It turns out knives are common when it comes to intrusive thoughts. Still, I shared this with no one. I hid it for six months.”

Allyson would arrive six weeks early and spend her first 10 days in a neonatal intensive care unit at a South Florida hospital. None of the professionals with whom Silliman came in contact counseled her about the trauma of having a NICU baby, yet another postpartum trigger.

“Right before my 30th birthday—Allyson had just turned three months—I finally broke down,” Silliman says. “I couldn’t put on a happy face. I couldn’t even unload the dishwasher. I wouldn’t cook anything that required using a knife as a utensil. … Luckily, my husband never caught on to us eating a lot of pasta instead of steak.

“But I was scared to tell him. What if he left me? What if he felt I was capable of hurting our daughter? Instead, he was so incredibly supportive.”

The next morning, at her husband’s urging, Silliman met with a psychiatrist in Coral Springs who put her on a low dose of Risperdal, a drug that, because it’s in the antipsychotic category, comes with potential baggage due to its use for treatment of conditions like schizophrenia. But for Silliman, it was “a life saver.” Within three days of first taking it, the intrusive thoughts slowly began to dissipate.

“I think my biggest [source of] anger was no one explaining that I had so many risk factors,” Silliman says. “I was searching for a reason to be having these horrible thoughts—but the reason was that my brain needed some rewiring. And the medication fixed it.”

During follow-up therapy, she recalls a counselor advising her to be careful about sharing the story. But Silliman was thinking just the opposite.

“I was ready to scream this from the mountaintop,” she says. “This can’t be happening to mothers.”

Silliman launched a support group in Wellington, MomsToMoms, to give women a place to share their stories and postpartum issues (she’s since started a virtual version). She began volunteering for Postpartum Support International, later becoming its Southeast regional coordinator. And then she met Fura, who had been itching to film a documentary that touched on the topics about which Silliman was so passionate.

Since its release, “Dark Side of the Full Moon” already has been purchased by the likes of Stanford University as a teaching tool in its medical program.

“Right now, North Carolina has the only in-patient perinatal psych unit in the entire country,” Silliman says. “It has three beds. And it’s constantly filled with moms who come from all over the country.

“So we’re excited that the documentary is infiltrating residency programs. If we can get the next generation of doctors and health-care professionals to recognize this, then maybe it will trickle down. We want those moms sitting in the OB office to feel comfortable enough to verbalize what they’re feeling—and know that they’re going to get help.”

For more Face Time, pick up the July/August issue of Boca Raton magazine.

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