National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Susanna Compassionately Portrays Postpartum Depression
By Stephanie Dinkmeyer, NAMI Communications Intern
Katie washes her hands, applies hand sanitizer, and uses mouthwash every time she picks up her baby, April. When she finally does hold her crying baby, she cannot soothe her. She tries a bottle of formula, a bottle of breast milk and sings a lullaby. She calls her sister, Susanna, for help. She tells her sister, “I’m not connected to her. She knows I don’t know what I’m doing. She wants me gone. She doesn’t respond to me. I’m like a stranger to her. I just need to go.” Eventually, she puts April back in her crib, leaves the room, and blasts loud music to drown out the sound of April’s cries.
This scene is from Susanna, a 12-episode YouTube Web series starring Anna Paquin and Maggie Grace. But for millions of mothers across the U.S. experiencing postpartum depression (PPD), this is reality. Susanna paints a mostly accurate and compassionate picture of PPD.
In its 8 to 12 minute-long episodes, focuses mostly on its namesake, Katie’s sister, played by Maggie Grace. Susanna is a high-powered executive at an investment firm. Focused and driven as she is, she does eventually take over caring for April when Katie (Anna Paquin) is hospitalized. Though it seems we are due for a film or TV show in which the main focus is on the woman with PPD, and the show is disappointing in that regard, Susanna’s perspective is a relevant one that highlights the importance of support in the life of new mothers, especially those with PPD.
Katie is diagnosed with PPD by a friend of Susanna’s who is a doctor. He tells Susanna that Katie is exhibiting “significant obsessive compulsive symptoms, some paranoia, and impaired judgment.” Katie, a single mom, is obsessed with April’s health, always believing she is sick. She’s afraid she will drop April and talks about how she never should have given birth to her. The symptoms are realistically portrayed by Paquin.
Of course, the series also has its moments of stereotype-fueling. Though expected in a dramatic TV show, they are a bit disheartening to see amidst an otherwise empowering depiction of PPD. For instance, Katie’s psychiatrist tells Susanna that “On a certain level every new mom goes crazy raising her child, especially if she doesn’t have support or a job to give her some distance. It’s like being in an induced psychotic state.” The flippant use of the word “crazy” minimizes Katie’s experience. And the incessant crying of the child is a tired trope and one that may lead some to believe that a fussy baby may be the only baby whose mother can develop PPD.
The most empowering lines from the series come from the professionals, who offer supportive words to both Katie and Susanna. For instance, the psychiatrist tells Katie, “You have an illness. It’s not your choice to have it. Most women have moments of it. All women have doubts about their competency. Some women have much deeper, more profound problems in depression, but it’s not because you did something wrong.” The referring doctor tells Katie, “These postpartum issues are a lot more common than people realize.” Both of these statements are true and precisely the kind of information that needs to be disseminated about PPD. And with the cast of characters orbiting around Katie, from her mother to Susanna to the medical staff to the nanny, the crux of the issue, support, gets the attention it deserves.
Although it isn’t going to be the PPD portrayal some of us have been waiting for, Susanna is worth the watch for anyone who knows a mother.