Dad Helps Women with Postpartum Depression After His Wife's Death by Suicide: 'It's My Therapy'
The moment Steven D'Achille heard his infant daughter crying and realized that his wife, Alexis — who had been suffering for weeks with severe postpartum depression and psychosis — was not with the baby, he felt something awful had happened.
Within minutes, he discovered Alexis, 30, had attempted suicide. Two days later, on October 10, 2013, she died in a hospital ICU.
Since that heartbreaking day, Steven has felt compelled to turn his grief into helping new moms who are suffering like Alexis did and unable to find the help they need: In the 15 days prior to Alexis's death, the couple sought help at seven different hospitals and facilities. Each time they were turned away.
"Alexis knew she was in trouble," Steven, 39, of Pittsburgh, PA, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "She was abundantly clear with what she was scared would happen. But it was always, 'Go home. You're not crazy.' "
When Steven first met Alexis at a party in 2008, and the attraction was instant. "We locked eyes, and from then on, we were inseparable," he says.
They married in 2009, and the pregnancy was smooth. "She was radiant and all the things you hear about pregnant women," Steven recalls.
Things started to unravel when Alexis gave birth on Aug. 30, 2013 to Adriana — a frightening "code blue" delivery where Adriana's umbilical cord had become wrapped multiple times around her neck.
While Adriana was born healthy, the birth trigged postpartum depression, including suicidal thoughts and hallucinations, and then postpartum psychosis, a rare and little-known mental illness that was likely related to Alexis's family history of bipolar disorder.
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"My wife believed that her first act of being a mother was damaging her daughter," says Steven, who works in his family's restaurant business. "She just unraveled."
"It was immediate," Steven adds, "and every day was worse than the previous."
Alexis was prescribed antidepressants by her obstetrician — but her symptoms persisted. "She started overthinking everything," he says. "She'd hear phantom baby cries, so she couldn't sleep. She wouldn't eat. She lost 50 lbs. in five and a half weeks."
Shortly after her death, Steven launched the Alexis Joy D'Achille Foundation to raise awareness and funds for those coping with perinatal anxiety and mood disorders.
Then, in 2018, with support from the Allegheny Health Network, he opened the Alexis Joy D'Achille Center for Perinatal Mental Health at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh, which offers therapy and childcare services, among other things, to pregnant women, new moms and their families. The program has already treated some 6,000 women.
"It's too late for Alexis, but my daughter, God willing, is going to have children one day, and I don't want her to face roadblocks we faced," Steven says. "We live in the greatest country in the world. How did a new mom not get the care that she needed?"
One of the moms he has helped is Brittany Kenna, 33, who struggled with anxiety after the birth of her daughter in 2019 and has benefited from the center's programs.
"I spiraled after I had my daughter, but the psychiatrist there helped with my medication and therapy," she says.
Now pregnant with her second child, Kenna is "trying to be proactive in this pregnancy and seeing my therapist at the center biweekly," she says. "It's nice to have that same support behind me. I'd still be lost had I not found the center."
Tragically, Alexis's story is not uncommon. An estimated one in eight new moms in the U.S. are affected by postpartum depression, which often manifests in feelings of anger, withdrawal from loved ones and difficulty with mother-baby bonding.
And yet, experts say there is a stigma attached to seeking help. "When families welcome a new baby, it's expected to be a joyous time, so it's difficult for a mother to admit she's suffering," Dr.Samantha Meltzer-Brody, a psychiatrist who is the director of the UNC Center for Women's Mood Disorders, tells PEOPLE. "We need to erase the stigma."
In honor of Alexis, Steven has made it his mission to do just that. He plans to help open more centers across the country, and works closely with the website MyCheckOnMom.com —which offers tools to help families take a proactive approach to mental health and PPD, and build a coping plan during pregnancy and after delivery.
"It's been my therapy," he says. "I don't want Alexis's death to be for nothing."
If you or someone you know is feeling depressed or needs help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor. Those struggling with PPD can also call Postpartum Support International's helpline at 800-944-4773.
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