Polly Fick thumbed through the pages of a scrapbook of mementos of her daughter, Mary Jo Trokey. She proudly shared school photos, award certificates, handwritten notes and other happy memories.
One of the last gifts she’d received from her daughter was a statue of an angel, which Mary Jo purchased at a craft fair. Her mother keeps it on a small table in their home, next to a portrait of Mary Jo, her husband, Matthew, and three-month-old daughter, Taylor Rose.
Mary Jo Trokey, her husband and daughter died in February 2018. Investigators said they believed that Mary Jo, possibly suffering from postpartum psychosis, killed her daughter and husband, then died by suicide.
Polly Fick and her husband, Frank, were stunned. “We had no idea she was going through this,” Polly Fick said.
The Ficks have since dedicated themselves to raising more awareness about postpartum depression and related illnesses. The members of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Oakville are spreading the word about resources through their involvement with Postpartum Support International (PSI), a non-profit organization that helps women and families affected by perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
“When this sort of thing happens, you either grow from it or you end up being broken by it,” Frank Fick said. “As horrible as it was, we wanted something positive to come from it.”
While many parents experience mood changes during or after the birth of a child, approximately 15 to 20% of women experience more significant symptoms of depression or anxiety, according to PSI. Symptoms may appear any time during pregnancy and the first 12 months after childbirth.
Although the term postpartum depression is commonly used, there are several related forms of illness that parents may experience, including anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar mood disorders, and psychosis.
Parents sometimes assume symptoms are a normal part of having a baby and go away with time. Doctors often will ask questions to screen mothers for postpartum depression.
From the outside, everything seemed to be going well for the Trokeys. This was the couple’s first baby, and Mary Jo had been active in their parish, St. Raphael the Archangel in St. Louis.
She had recently returned to her job with an insurance company and was working from home. Polly Fick wondered whether someone would have noticed any signs of distress, if her daughter had been working in an office.
The Ficks were invited by their daughter to attend a class for first-time grandparents. Polly Fick remembered a reference to the “baby blues,” but what their daughter must have been going through was much more than that, she added.
“With the hormonal changes — the lack of sleep, working at home — it was all these different factors,” Frank Fick said. “She probably had depression and then all these other factors were compounded and it just shifted into psychosis,” Frank Fick said.
Several days after childbirth, most new mothers (experts estimate about 80%) get the “baby blues,” according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Mothers may become depressed, anxious and upset; Some may feel angry with the baby, their partners or their other children; cry for no clear reason; have trouble sleeping or eating and question whether they can handle caring for a baby. These symptoms usually get better within a few days or one to two weeks without any treatment.
Approximately 15 to 20% of women experience more significant symptoms of depression or anxiety after childbirth, according to PSI. Postpartum psychosis is rare, occurring in one to two women 1,000, with symptoms including seeing or hearing voices or images that others cannot, high level of energy and inability to sleep, believing things that are not true and distrusting others.
Support through grief
The Ficks said their involvement with PSI, along with the support the Catholic community, including at St. Francis of Assisi, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (Polly Fick is a CSJ associate), and several other parishes in South County, have been essential in the midst of their grief and healing process.
St. Francis of Assisi held a prayer service the evening the family learned about the deaths. “People that I didn’t even know stepped forward,” Polly Fick said. “Left things on the porch. All of the South County deanery (parishes) really stepped up to the plate. And people prayed for us.”
“We would not be sitting here right now without the support,” she said. “It’s only by the grace of God.”
>> Postpartum illnesses
Many women experience changes in mood or “the blues” during or after the birth of a child. However, one in seven women experience more significant symptoms of depression or anxiety. One in 10 fathers also experience depression during the first year.
Feelings of depression can include anger, irritability, guilt, lack of interest in the baby, changes in eating and sleeping, trouble concentrating, thoughts of hopelessness and sometimes thoughts of harming the baby or yourself.
Feelings with anxiety might include extreme worries and fears, including the health and safety of the baby, panic attacks, shortness of breath, dizziness and a feeling of losing control.
Postpartum psychosis is a rare illness compared to the rates of postpartum depression or anxiety. It occurs in approximately one to two out of every 1,000 deliveries, or approximately .1% of births. The onset is usually sudden, most often within the first 2 weeks postpartum. Symptoms could include seeing or hearing voices or images that others cannot, high level of energy and inability to sleep, believing things that are not true and distrusting others.
For more information and resources, visit Postpartum Support International at www.postpartum.net.
Postpartum Support International runs a helpline (1-800-944-4773), in-person and online support groups, a mentor program and a directory of care providers. See www.postpartum.net/
Saint Louis Counseling, a service of Catholic Charities of St. Louis, offers individual counseling services at several locations throughout the Archdiocese of St. Louis. For information, see saintlouiscounseling.org.
Saint Louis Counseling also has a podcast episode on postpartum depression, featuring the founders of the Love Will Foundation, which offers affordable counseling for individuals in the St. Louis area. See https://stlreview.com/3H6L3Fw.
For more information on the Love Will Foundation, see lovewillfoundation.org.