By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Paige Bellenbaum is angry with Andrew Cuomo.
Bellenbaum, a member of Community Board Six in Park Slope, has been working tirelessly for three years for the passage of a bill that would mandate that the state make it easier for women suffering from postpartum depression to find the help they need.
But with the stroke of his pen, Cuomo dashed her hopes. On Wednesday night, he vetoed the legislation.
“This fight isn’t over,” Bellenbaum told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. She vowed to continue to advocate for the establishment of a new law to help women suffering from the often unspoken-about disorder.
Bellenbaum, a licensed social worker who co-chairs Board Six’s Youth, Human Services and Education Committee, had worked with state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), the bill’s main sponsor, to craft the legislation.
The bill would have made it mandatory for the Department of Health and the Office of Mental Health to adopt guidelines for screen new mothers and pregnant women for signs of postpartum depression, also known as maternal depression.
In addition to testing for depression, the bill called for hospitals and health care providers to offer information on the signs of postpartum depression to women and their families and to provide a list of places to go for help. “It was very important to me that a woman’s support network know what services are available. The spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend and parents should be informed,” Bellenbaum said.
Under the legislation, screenings would be conducted on a regular basis throughout the first year of a child’s life, when the depression is most common. Doctors often screen new mothers for postpartum depression, but only do it once.
For Bellenbaum, the fight is a personal one. She suffered from postpartum depression after the birth of her son Max seven years ago. She now has two children. Max has a sister, Ella. But the memory of her post-partum depression is painful, Bellenbaum said.
Bellenbaum went through a difficult labor and delivery. “When it was over and he was finally born, I didn’t feel happy. I wasn’t looking forward to holding him in my arms. I wanted him off me. I was exhausted and all I wanted was something to eat,” she said.
The first few months of her son’s life were hard on her, she said. “I was not able to identify what was happening to me. I felt so guilty and so wrong. I felt like my life had been taken away from me. You hear all about how joyful the experience of having a child is. But that wasn’t my experience,” she said.
Her lack of emotional attachment to her baby made her feel strange and guilty, she said. “I felt guilty all the time. I started to socially isolate myself,” she candidly told the Eagle.
Bellenbaum, who had thoughts of suicide, didn’t know where to turn. “I’m a trained social worker. I have experience helping people. Yet the more I looked for help, the less resources I could find,” she said.
Approximately one percent of new mothers suffer from postpartum depression, according to medical experts. Among the symptoms: feeling helpless, exhaustion, resenting the new baby and having thoughts of suicide.
Bellenbaum eventually got the help she needed and enjoys a warm loving relationship with her children.
She is a fierce advocate now, she said, because she doesn’t want other mothers to have to search high and low for help. They should be able to find assistance easily, she said.
Through her work as a housing advocate, she knew Krueger. She approached the lawmaker with her idea to change state law to provide clear-cut assistance to women with postpartum depression. The senator jumped at the opportunity.
The bill was approved unanimously by both houses of the legislature during the recent session.
When it arrived on Cuomo’s desk, however, the governor vetoed it.
“I support the sponsors’ efforts to raise awareness and enhance opportunities for new mothers to be screened for maternal depression. However, practitioners are in the best position to identify and make appropriate referrals for their patients,” the governor said in his veto message.
Krueger said she was disappointed by the veto.
"The governor seems to have misunderstood our bill,” she said.
“It looks like nothing in the veto message actually conflicts with what our bill does. Specifically, our bill doesn't take decisions out of the hands of practitioners, quite the opposite, in fact, which is one reason why the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatricians both vocally supported the bill,” Krueger said.
“Our bill just cuts red tape in the way of women getting screened for postpartum and other forms of maternal depression, and authorizes the Department of Health to provide resources to make it easier for women to get access to the help they need,” the senator said.
"I am at the governor's disposal, day or night, to discuss any and all concerns about this bill. We should not go another year without it being passed and signed," Krueger said.
The veto is particularly puzzling, advocates said, given the fact that there is a great deal of support for the bill. A petition on change.org calling on Cuomo to sign the bill had more than 7,000 signatures.
Bellenbaum, who has been a member of Board Six, said she will continue to work on behalf of the community and will continue to fight for a new law. “I’m a community activist at heart,” she said.