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HAMMOND — Northwestern University is training nearly 80 home visitors in Lake County how to be on the lookout for and help treat postpartum depression.

Home visitors with Mental Health America of Lake County received the training this week at Miller School in Hammond. It is the first organization in Indiana to get the training.

Twenty to 40 percent of women who give birth will experience postpartum depression, yet only a quarter of them will receive any treatment, said Erin Ward, a clinical research associate with Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

"Women are nervous about taking medication if they're pregnant or breastfeeding. Talk therapy is often the best option," she said.

Yet it can take anywhere from six weeks to six months to get in to see a therapist, said Renae Vania Tomczak, president and CEO of Mental Health America of Lake County.

"Every day can feel insurmountable if they're struggling with depression and anxiety," Ward said.

That's where the home visitors come in. They're already in the home and have a relationship with the mothers.

The Mothers and Babies course teaches the home visitors how to screen for and begin to talk the women through their postpartum depression.

"Our goal is to bring the treatment outside of mental health facilities, to meet moms where they are," Ward said.

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"Our staff has already developed that trusting relationship," Vania Tomczak said. "For a lot of families, they are the only support system they have."

"We're giving home visitors concrete, structured, evidence-based tools to structure conversations and work with the clients," Ward said.

Wendy Hensley, program director with Mental Health America of Lake County, said the moms they work with often have barriers to getting mental health care: financial, child care, even the depression itself.

"We see families who have experienced trauma, who are dealing with toxic stress," she said. "Our home visitors know all the resources.

"Everyone needs to learn how to cope and manage stress."

Ward said the program, based on cognitive behavioral therapy, can help keep moms and babies healthy. The home visitors help the moms implement more positive thinking patterns, develop social support and improve communication skills.

"Addressing maternal mental health can have an impact on prenatal health," she said. "Healthy behaviors lead to a healthy pregnancy, carrying to term, normal birth weights. So mom isn't reaching for coping skills that put the baby at risk: smoking, alcohol, drugs, eating Big Macs. It's all connected.

"We help them make themselves more emotionally healthy so they can be the best parent they can be," she added.

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.