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A family's faith and a mother's legacy shine through The Emily Effect

SALEM, Utah County — Emily Dyches loved the song "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," and over the past year her family has come to know in powerful ways what it means to experience "streams of mercy, never ceasing" amidst an unthinkable and heartbreaking tragedy.

On Feb. 24, Dyches died after she ran into the path of oncoming traffic on I-15 near Nephi. She had been battling a complex perinatal mood disorder, and her family believes one of her panic attacks caused her to run onto the freeway in a disoriented state.

"I was caught up in the beginning of making certain everybody knew that Emily did not choose to take her own life, but at this point it doesn’t matter,” explained Eric Dyches, Emily's husband, while surrounded by their children and her parents and siblings at their home in Salem.

“We want to end the stigma associated with suicide, mental illness and debilitating mood disorders,” he said.

At the time of Emily's death, Eric was serving as a bishop for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"We've built our life since Emily's passing on hope," he said. "We have hope that we will see her again. We have hope that we can not only endure the years without her here, but we can flourish."

But Eric admits the family had to make the choice to plant seeds of hope instead of doubt, anger and hopelessness.

"They are planted and nurtured just like seeds of faith," he explained. "And it was very interesting. I could feel that in my heart at that moment, (and) I had to consciously tell myself, 'You cannot go there.'"

The Dyches family is relying on their faith and hope to help other families understand and navigate perinatal mood disorders through a foundation created in Emily's honor, The Emily Effect.

The maze of mental illness

Emily had never experienced depression or anxiety before the birth of her fifth child. She loved being a mother, and it wasn’t unusual for her husband to call during the day and hear laughter in her voice as she described not getting much done because she was too busy snuggling and playing with the kids.

The Dyches looked forward to the birth of their last child.

“It was kind of a dream. We were making the most because he was our last child,” Eric recalled.

But soon after she returned home from the hospital in March of last year, Emily's mental health began to suffer.

"A few days after her return home, I could sense that she was very, very different," Eric said.

Emily was agitated and depressed. She consulted her OB-GYN, who prescribed some antidepressants. Her condition began to improve, so by August she thought she no longer needed the medication. But as time went on, the anxiety returned and she began having episodes of persistent anxiety and debilitating panic attacks.

"She described it as if you are in a burning building and you try to get to safety," Eric explained.

Psychiatrist Tom Draschil said the general public doesn't understand panic very well.

"You can't always reason with people in a panic situation," Draschil said. "You have this objective feeling of just being out of control, which is very, very scary for people."

Emily saw Draschil at the outpatient mental health clinic at Mountain View Hospital. He told the Dycheses that Emily's symptoms suggested more than postpartum depression — possibly PTSD.

"You can get PTSD from delivery of a baby if something went wrong in the delivery," Draschil explained.

And for Emily, it did. She had serious complications during labor, and after delivering her baby, her doctor feared she might be at risk for a fatal embolism.

"I honestly thought I was losing my wife," Eric said, "and I think she thought she was going too."

Traumatic treatment

By the end of January, the anxiety overwhelmed Eric and Emily. Their insurance wouldn't cover outpatient treatment, so Emily willingly checked herself into a psychiatric hospital that their insurance would cover.

But Emily was one of just two women in the facility suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety, and she told her husband she was fearful of a man who talked about his felony convictions.

"She spent 11 grueling nights away from our kids, and the baby was nursing," Eric said. "It was a traumatic event for us. My mother-in-law weened our baby overnight. It didn't need to be that way. I just wish we would have had a facility that catered to maternal mental health."

Upon returning home and for the next two weeks, they began to believe her struggles were finally over. But on Feb. 24, Emily's anxiety exploded again. She couldn't sleep. Eric comforted her throughout the night, and in the morning she decided to visit her parents.

That afternoon, as her father was driving her home, she began suffering a panic attack in the car along I-15 near Nephi.

"She went from that anxiety to that panic so very quickly. It was very stunning to me, and I was not prepared for it," explained Lynn Cook, Emily's father. "It was the perfect storm in the sense that we were on the freeway and I had no alternative than to stop; and she was able to get out of the vehicle and wandered on the freeway, very disoriented."

Eric had been on the phone with Cook and could hear the commotion. Then the phone went silent.

The Emily Effect

Eric believes the family did everything they knew how to do to help Emily, and he doesn't blame anyone for her death.

"We took full advantage of the medical resources that we had at our disposal. I've since come to find out there are other resources available," he said.

Eric found that those resources, however, are underfunded and not readily accessible, and that is what he hopes to change through The Emily Effect Foundation.

"I think the one thing I've learned through this process is we need to anticipate better," Eric said.

Depression is the No. 1 complication of childbirth, but few mothers are screened for mood disorders. There is also a shortage of psychiatrists and only a handful of therapists who have specialized training in perinatal mental health, according to Amy-Rose White, director of the Utah Maternal Health Collaborative.

"With the right help, you will be well. Full recovery is possible," White said.

She also said it is important for couples to recognize that mothers and fathers can experience symptoms.

"Pretty much every parent I have ever worked with who had a NICU baby has some of the symptoms of PTSD, if not the full-blown diagnosis, and that includes fathers as well," White said.

Because of The Emily Effect, more women are seeking help. Eric said he has received countless messages from women who are getting the right treatment because they heard Emily's story.

One woman wrote, "I've gotten the help I needed and have been able to help another friend with postpartum depression. I hope you can feel our gratitude and love."

Streams of mercy

The Dyches family is still coming to terms with Emily's death, but knowing they can help others has brought all those who loved Emily a lot of peace.

"She had such a great effect on individuals, and the effect that she left is lasting on all of us. We want to take that and share those with others," Eric said.

To help himself cope, Eric has started writing what he calls "Missives to Em."

"It was one month in, and it was a very difficult time away from her," Eric said, and he decided he wanted to write a love note to his wife. "I sit down and take a couple of hours and share the feelings in my heart with her, and I feel a strong connection with her."

He recently wrote: "In your absence we have received more succoring, lifting and strengthening certainly than we deserve, but so much more than I will ever be able to repay. I will never be able to balance the books with God or the people who have given so much to our little family during this time of difficulty — but I plan to try. The community, our immediate and extended families, our dear friends have all been here in your absence, Em. It is so humbling."

Eric also said he has come to a better understanding of what it means to have an eternal relationship with his wife.

"There is a line from 'The Family: A Proclamation to the World' that says family relationships can be perpetuated beyond the grave," he said, "and prior to having this experience, I thought once I died that is when my relationships will be perpetuated. But I've had a very sweet experience to know that my relationship with Emily continues right now."

The Emily Effect Foundation is teaming up with Postpartum Progress for its annual Climb Out of the Darkness hike on June 18 at the Spanish Fork Reservoir.

For more information and resources for those struggling with perinatal mood disorders, visit The Emily Effect website.

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Resources

Postpartum Support WarmLine: 800-944-4773

Crisis Lifeline: 800-273-8255

TheEmilyEffect.org

UtahMMHC.com

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Bringing Postpartum Depression Out of the Shadows Act

Congress is currently considering several bills that would bring postpartum depression out of the shadows by expanding screenings and treatment for women, including HR3235. Under the bill, Congress asserts:

• Depression is a medical, physiologic illness — not a sign of weakness or poor parenting.

• Maternal depression includes major and minor depressive episodes that occur during pregnancy or in the first 12 months after delivery.

• An estimated 9 percent to 16 percent of new mothers experience postpartum depression.

• Every year, more than 400,000 infants are born to mothers who have depression, which makes perinatal depression the most underdiagnosed obstetric complication in the United States.

• The consequences of maternal depression include poor bonding between mother and infant, which may have negative effects on cognitive development, social-emotional development and behavior of the child.

• Maternal suicide exceeds hemorrhage and hypertensive disorders as a cause of maternal mortality.

• About 90 percent of women who have maternal depression can be treated successfully with a combination of medication and counseling.

Email: cmadsen@deseretnews.com, spenrod@deseretnews.com