From the moment her baby was born, Alexis D’Achille’s mental health began to slip.
The formerly happy and vibrant young wife had experienced a traumatic delivery that left her physically and emotionally drained. When Adriana was born not breathing the scene turned even more tense and frightening. Even after Adriana was revived and breathing on her own, Alexis was mired in an overwhelming sadness that she simply could not shake.
“It was the beginning of the end,” said her husband Steven D’Achille. Even after Steven took Alexis and Adriana home the new mom appeared detached and overwhelmed by caring for a newborn. As the baby wailed in her crib Alexis would sink to the floor, exhausted and weeping helplessly. Her husband knew right away that something was wrong, but even after they sought help from doctors their worries were brushed aside as “baby blues.”
“Alexis would just cry and cry and say, ‘I can’t do this,’” Steven said. “I would find her on the closet floor, on the ground, crying her eyes out.” Alexis’s physicians responded by giving her large doses of antidepressants, none of which worked for her. In fact, Alexis told Steven that the medicines were making her feel even worse. “As soon as I got on the (medication) it is making me have all these bad bad thoughts,” she told her husband at the time.
Over the next few weeks, they went to seven different crisis centers and hospitals to seek help for Alexis’s mental health troubles. In October the couple celebrated their wedding anniversary by going to see yet another doctor. At this appointment, she confided that she’d been having suicidal thoughts — and she had a plan in mind to take her own life.
“The doctor pulled me aside and said, ‘She is going to be fine,’” Steven recalled. “I can’t believe I was stupid enough to listen to him.”
The next morning Steven woke up to find the space beside him on the bed empty. “I could hear the baby crying downstairs, hysterical. My heart just hit the floor and I knew something bad had happened,” he said. Steven frantically called 911 and performed CPR on his wife. She was taken to the hospital where she clung to life for two days before passing away. Her baby was just 6 weeks old.
Devastated and furious in his grief, Steven vowed then and there to make something worthwhile come from his wife’s postpartum experience and tragic death. He kept wondering how we could have no help for postpartum mental health in today’s day and age. Soon his grief turned into determination: if no one else would change postpartum mental health care, he would do it himself.
“I want to fix the problem,” he said. “My daughter isn’t the only kid without a parent and I’m not the only husband without a wife (because of suicide).”
Since Alexis’s death, Steven has started a nonprofit called The Alexis Joy Foundation in collaboration with Allegheny Health Network and Highmark Health in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Together they’ve created a new kind of facility called the Alexis Joy D’Achille Center for Perinatal Mental Health.
At the center, there are two levels of care, an outpatient therapeutic program where women meet with a therapist weekly and an intensive program that involves three-hour sessions three days a week and includes mother-baby interaction. Staff members aim to help a mom with postpartum anxiety learn how to manage her anxiety during day-to-day life. They focus on fostering bonding between mother and baby using breastfeeding, yoga, and babywearing. Steven hopes the center will finally enable women with postpartum mood disorders to get the help they need — the help that Alexis never got.
Celebrities like model Chrissy Teigen have gotten behind the movement in an effort to raise awareness for postpartum mental health.
Steven later learned that Alexis didn’t even have postpartum depression; she had a rare but extremely serious postpartum mental condition called postpartum psychosis. This condition can cause delusions and hallucinations that sadly often lead to suicide. The center aims to educate the public about the many other forms of mental health disorders that can affect new moms, including postpartum anxiety, psychosis, and OCD.
Steven knows that if he can help even one person suffering from a postpartum mental health disorder that his wife’s memory lives on. “She would be really proud,” he said. “I think about the lives these children get, a normal life, because of the services we offer.”
Steven is now dedicating his life to helping others with this complicated health problem. He’s a perfect example of someone who has taken a terrible situation and used it to make an important societal change that will benefit countless others. We mourn for his loss but thank him for extending this lifeline to others.
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