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Salem woman’s death inspires husband to start nonprofit to raise awareness of postpartum depression

By Katie England daily Herald - | Jun 12, 2016
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Jena Christiansen poses for a photo during an adoption event, Saturday, June 4, 2016, in Provo. Christensen is a part of The Emily Effect, a non-profit based in the area. DOMINIC VALENTE, Daily Herald

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Jena Christiansen mingles with other families during an adoption event, Saturday, June 4, 2016, in Provo. Christensen is a part of The Emily Effect, a non-profit based in the area. DOMINIC VALENTE, Daily Herald

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Kids run around during an adoption event, Saturday, June 4, 2016, in Provo. Emily Christensen is a part of The Emily Effect, a non-profit based in the area. DOMINIC VALENTE, Daily Herald

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Jena Christiansen poses for a photo during an adoption event, Saturday, June 4, 2016, in Provo. Christensen is a part of The Emily Effect, a non-profit based in the area. DOMINIC VALENTE, Daily Herald

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Jena Christiansen mingles with other families during an adoption event, Saturday, June 4, 2016, in Provo. Christensen is a part of The Emily Effect, a non-profit based in the area. DOMINIC VALENTE, Daily Herald

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Jena Christiansen had The Emily Effect logo tattooed on her wrist. The "E," for Emily, is slanted to also resemble an "M," since Emily Dyches was known as Em to family and friends. 

Jena Christiansen and Emily Dyches never met each other. In fact, the first time Christiansen heard of Dyches, she was learning details about her death.  

In February, a postpartum panic attack had caused Dyches, a Salem resident and mother of five, to exit a vehicle on Interstate 15 near Nephi. After leaving the vehicle, she was struck by a truck and killed.

All Christiansen could think when a mutual friend told her the story was, “That could have been me.”

Jena’s story

Christiansen, who spent 10 years of her childhood in Utah County but currently lives in Hurricane, had experienced what she described as a sense of “downness” after placing a son for adoption in 2003. Through counseling, she worked through that grieving process with no medication.

But after getting married and giving birth to a daughter in 2007, she experienced much more than just feeling down. She had a hard time bonding with her new daughter and cried constantly. Many people around her told her she would “get over it,” or that she simply needed to be happy.

Her sister recommended she get on medication for what she later found out was postpartum depression, and her initial response was a resounding no.

“I said, no, that’s what crazy people do,” Christiansen said.

But when her symptoms did not get better, Christiansen finally broke down, went to see a doctor, and started taking an anti-depressant. But as soon as she started feeling better, she dropped the medication.

Christiansen had another daughter in 2011, and when her PPD came back, it came back hard. She found out she was pregnant with a son only six weeks after giving birth to that daughter, which just compounded her feelings of anxiety and depression.

“It was just shock and awe, and feeling completely helpless, like how am I going to do this?” Christiansen said. “So I didn’t even get to move forward with trying to get better.”

She went back on medication, but it wasn’t helping. Her thoughts grew darker and darker.

She would take a nightly drive to try to escape the stress.

“I felt so empty and so broken,” Christiansen said. “I would think, ‘If I just drove in front of this car, or just drove off this cliff, it would all be over.'”

When, years later, Christiansen heard that Emily Dyches’ husband, Eric Dyches, was starting a foundation to help raise awareness of PPD and direct women to resources, she felt an immediate connection with the mission of the organization.

The Emily Effect

After his wife’s death in February, Eric Dyches was numb and in shock. He couldn’t help but wonder, “How did this happen to us?” On paper, the Dycheses had everything going for them. The middle-class family had five children, a happy marriage and good health insurance.

He knew that if this could happen to his family, it could happen to anyone.

“Right after the initial accident and it’s sinking in that my wife is gone, I’m thinking, ‘What could I have done differently to keep her here?'” Eric Dyches said. “The thought was, I need to do something. A foundation would be perfect.”

And so he launched a small, all-volunteer effort to establish The Emily Effect, a non-profit that helps women suffering from PPD and other perinatal mood disorders. It will be several months before the official non-profit status is granted, but work on awareness and directing women to resources has already begun.

The website, theemilyeffect.org, has a twofold purpose: direct women to resources and help raise awareness about PPD to help do away with the stigma associated with such mental disorders. Because, though Eric Dyches had only positive things to say about the professionals his wife saw, he noticed a disconnect between local services that needed some work.

“The whole lack of coordination among all the professionals and clinicians was maddening to me along the way,” Eric Dyches said.

Right now, accomplishing the group’s goals is as simple as answering email inquiries received through the website. Women commonly ask for recommendations for therapists or other specialists in certain parts of the county or state. Volunteers, who mostly include Emily’s close family and friends, are able to direct them to professionals who specialize in dealing with postpartum issues.

“So we’re connecting those dots just organically right now,” Eric Dyches said. “My plan in the future would be to do that more broadly on our website, and as we drive more traffic to the website, individuals in a given geographic region can say, ‘I’m interested in an OB in Utah County, Davis County, or Salt Lake County,’ and we can direct traffic to OBs who understand maternal mental health, to people who have staff that can manage it if something were to progress.”

The Emily Effect has received feedback from women all over the country, and Eric Dyches said volunteers reply to as many as they can. But he mostly wants to focus on the state of Utah, specifically near Salem, where he lives.

“I’m most concerned with southern Utah County,” he said. “Because that’s where my girls are, that’s where my closest friends are.”

The impact

By the time Christiansen heard about The Emily Effect, she had found ways to help herself get through the worst of her postpartum depression and anxiety. Therapy and medication helped her through the severe PPD that hit after she gave birth to her last daughter. She found that exercising every day and eating right went a long way toward making her feel better, and she eventually replaced the medication she was on with an all-natural supplement.

But she still has her bad days, and Emily’s story hit her hard.

“I can’t say I know for sure, but I felt like I knew the thoughts in her head before she took out of that car,” Christiansen said. “I was there.”

Despite her years-long struggle with PPD, The Emily Effect is the first group of its kind that Christiansen had ever heard of that is designed specifically for those suffering from postpartum depression. After visiting the group’s Facebook page, she was impressed with the positivity portrayed.

“They are showing that getting help is OK,” Christiansen said. “That was the biggest thing for me.”

She had fought a lot of stigma while struggling with PPD.

“People kept telling me, ‘You’ll get over it. You’re fine. You just need to be happy,'” Christiansen said. “And in my mind, I’m thinking, no, I really feel like I’m broken.”

And part of that had to do with her lack of knowledge about the topic herself. She had only a passing understanding of perinatal mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

“Before I experienced it, I thought, ‘Oh they’re full of crap,'” she said. “There’s no way you can have depression from having a baby.”

Christiansen has long been an advocate for birth moms who place a child in an adoptive home. And now, because of The Emily Effect, she’s become an advocate for those struggling with PPD as well.

At the end of May, Christiansen had The Emily Effect logo, a slanted E, tattooed  on her left wrist. Even just the first week after getting it, she had fielded many questions about what it stood for and what it meant.

“She (Emily) has touched my life without even knowing her,” Christiansen said. “I hope I can keep that going so that other people don’t have to suffer the same fate that she did.”

But besides educating others, it also helps remind her to keep going. Because for her and many others, depression isn’t something that goes away overnight.

“I got it because I felt like I was falling back into my depression,” Christiansen said. “And I look at this (tattoo) and it’s a reminder for me to keep going, to keep pushing. And I want to teach other people that they can too.”

Eric Dyches said The Emily Effect has helped dozens of women since launching the website, and hopes to expand to be able to help many more in the future.

He said, eventually, he wants the mission to expand outside of maternal mental health to include fathers, teens and others. But for now, the focus is on moms.

“Moms feel embarrassed about going through this,” Dyches said. “They feel ashamed; they feel as though they’ve done something to bring this upon themselves. So I am going to end the stigma in my backyard, in my community, in my circle of influence.”

The Emily Effect has teamed up with Postpartum Progress for an event on Saturday called ”Climb out of the Darkness,” a two-mile hike in Spanish Fork to help raise awareness of postpartum depression and other perinatal mood disorders.

The hike, which starts at the Spanish Fork Reservoir Pavilion and ends at a higher elevation, is symbolic of what The Emily Effect is all about.

“You get to the top (of the hike) and you can see the vista,” Eric Dyches said. “It’s symbolic of what we’re trying to do with Emily’s foundation. Somebody’s in a black hole, in a dark spot, and we’re going to try to pull them up through education and resources and communication.”

And sometimes, just knowing that there are other people out there that have gone through the same struggles is the best thing for women who have PPD.

“I think it (The Emily Effect) will save lives,” Christiansen said. “I hope it saves lives. Because when you’re struggling from depression, you feel alone. And that’s so far from the truth.”

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