Before we can really dive into the potential role of hormones in post-adoption depression, we first need to address what role hormones play in postpartum depression (PPD) in general to see if we can eliminate it as an extraneous variable (another potential cause of or correlation to the effect being observed other than the one being observed).
According to Milapkumar Patel, MD, et al. (2012), there are inconclusive studies about the cause or correlation between hormones and PPD. They talk about the potential etiology, or the cause(s), of PPD, saying:
The etiology of PPD remains unclear … No specific cause of PPD has been documented, but studies tend to show that more likely causes are the significant changes in a woman’s hormones during pregnancy … Women who develop postpartum depression may be more sensitive to these hormonal changes and drops in hormone levels after delivery. Some research reports that there is an association between cortisol levels and depressive symptoms during pregnancy and postpartum, while others have suggested there is no known correlation between hormones and postpartum depression. Finally, all mothers experience these hormonal changes, but only about 10-15% suffers PPD. Although relevant, this fact does not demonstrate that hormones do not play a role in PPD … A history of depression in previous pregnancies or postpartum period increases the risk of developing PPD. Women with previous depressive episode are at 50% to 60% increased risk of recurrent episodes with subsequent pregnancies. Prenatal anxiety is highly prevalent in PPD patients.
With that being said, there is very little research on the topic of hormones and depression among birth mothers. However, a few other scholarly studies have made some other stable correlations. For instance, Terril Lynn Blanton and colleagues (1990) were able to use some past research on the grief of mothers who lost a child to death to duplicate some of those same reactions in birth mothers. Blanton found that birth mothers go through the same five stages of grief: 1) Shock and denial, 2) Guilt, 3) Anger and depression, 4) Sadness and searching, and 5) Acceptance (Watson, 1986 and Millan & Roll, 1985). Their research was able to give foundation to the notion that placing a child for adoption is not a single, passive event. Whether the adoption was by choice or coercion, open or closed, recent or decades ago, it is experienced with feelings of grief and loss.
Another example is from Janette Logan (1996). Though her research with Oxford used a very small sample and was focused more on women who didn’t have a choice in whether or not to place their children for adoption, she did have some interesting findings. In her qualitative study, she found that those who lead happy, successful lives, those who struggled to the point of attempted suicide, and everyone in between, all suffered from some form of depression. For eighty-two percent of the participants (23 birth mothers), the depression was said to be more than PPD. Of those who characterized it as significant, 19 of them said it had caused mental illness, though only four or five of them were ever medically diagnosed as having a mental illness.
Regardless of research and statistics, placing a child for adoption isn’t easy, and the post-adoption depression that can stem from it is very real. It does have a lasting impact on each and every birth mother. However, there can be so much good that comes from it adoption. The best advice I can give, one birth mother to another, is if you are suffering, know that you’re not alone. If you’re feeling hopeless, seek help from family, friends, counsellors, or doctors. If you ever, at any time, feel suicidal, call 911. But, if you feel like you have a positive story to share, a message of hope for the future, and that you can help others from your experiences, be an advocate for those who need your help.
Blanton, T. & Deschner, J. (1990). Biological mothers’ grief: the postadoptive experience in open
versus confidential adoption. Child Welfare 89, 525-535
Logan, J. (1996). Birth mothers and their mental health: uncharted territory. The British Journal
of Social Work, 26, 609-625
Millen, L. & Roll, S. (1985). Soloman’s mothers: a special case of pathological bereavement.
American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55, 441-448
Patel, M., Bailey, R., Jabeen, S., Ali, S., Barker, N, C., et al. (2012). Postpartum depression: a
review. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved 23, 534-542
Watson, D. W. (1986). Birth families living with the adoption decision. Public Welfare, 44, 5-10