University of Washington
Need help now?  Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255
Need Help Now? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 1.800.273.8255

Dad gives back to help prevent suicides

Dad gives back to help prevent suicides

Thomas Soukakos will cater Forefront’s September celebration and fundraiser again this year. — photo by Sue Lockett John

Everyone has a role in suicide prevention, and Thomas Soukakos participates with all his generous heart. The Seattle restaurateur regularly reaches out to new mothers and fathers facing postpartum depression (PPD), the condition that claimed his wife Carol’s life 12 years ago. His two Vios cafes are known for embracing families and welcoming young children. And, again this year, he will support Forefront’s suicide-prevention mission by serving his Greek specialties at its fall fundraising event.

“I will do anything in my capacity to help others,” he says over the early lunch clatter and chatter at Vios Café and Marketplace on Capitol Hill. “I’ve been helped by others, and now I’m giving back. Part of me just has to do it.”

He recalls how his caring and faithful community gathered around him and his 4½ -month old baby boy after his wife took her own life. The house was always full of people—fixing meals, babysitting, hugging, listening and just being there. With help from them and insights he can only attribute to a higher power, Soukakos sensed even then that somehow that he and baby Alexander would get through this, even though he had no idea how.

Learning to help others

He pulled away for a bit, going back to Greece to think things through. When he came back, he quizzed Carol's doctors, went to counseling, and learned everything he could about the disorder, even traveling to Postpartum Support International’s annual conference to ask, “How did this happen? How did she get in this extreme way? What can help others?”

Postpartum support information is prominently posted on Vios bulletin boards.The more he learned, the more he saw the need for education and awareness. He couldn’t reverse what happened to them, but didn’t want their experience to be the outcome for others. He never bought into the stigma that silences some loss survivors, and believes his openness has made it easier for mothers (and fathers) to talk about their own feelings.

Soukakos has heard from hundreds of parents, many of them patrons at his Capitol Hill and Ravenna cafes, which were designed to support young families with play areas and warmth. “My business plan was to open a good place that has good food and is good for families—so parents can have their kids with them.” He believes families need more time together, especially after the birth of a child. They need their friends and family members, too. “We lead very busy lives, but its important to stay together and be supportive,” he says, adding that in traditional Greek culture, the mother and baby don’t do anything but bond for 40 days, while extended family members do the work.

Raising awareness, not fears

New parents and their loved ones also need to know about PPD. “It’s very important to recognize the possibility. If the father knows it’s going on, he can participate more fully,” says Soukakos, who knows firsthand that new fathers can get depressed too. He displays Speak Up When You’re Down posters (for PPD support) at the cafés, and testified in Olympia for the state program that helps support it.

He finds it easy to talk with new moms and dads, but  “difficult to bring awareness without scaring them.” Most new mothers feel the “baby blues” to some extent, says Seattle’s Swedish Hospital Pregnancy and Childbirth Postpartum Depression website; a smaller percentage have symptoms that persist or worsen and should talk to their doctor or midwife of a behavioral health specialist. (See some symptoms at right.)

Postpartum psychosis, like Carol’s, is rarer yet, but requires immediate help and strong precautions.  Soukakos wishes to this day that her doctors had warned him not to leave her alone, even briefly.

Everyone can help

The depth of his loss is apparent, but so is the vitality of his life today. Soukakos is looking forward to opening a third Greek restaurant, Omega Ouzeri, in November, the 31st anniversary of his arrival in the United States. It will be a “grown-up restaurant” this time, for a different part of his Capitol Hill community. “It’s the restaurant I always wanted to do when I came to Seattle,” he says.

His son Alexander is “doing great,” he reports, pulling up a picture taken at his son’s sixth grade graduation. He remarried about five years ago. His wife Rebecca is a “very dynamic” woman he met at the Healing Center, a grief support community for those who have prematurely lost a spouse/partner, parent or sibling.  Also a loss survivor, she is secretary of the center’s board and its former executive director. 

The Healing Center also introduced Soukakos to Sue Eastgard, who would go on to become Forefront’s training director. Their friendship made him a natural to cater Forefront’s launch event in 2013, and a welcome contributor to the 2014 event this fall. It’s just another example of how everyone can help advance the cause of suicide prevention. — by Sue Lockett John

There’s help for postpartum depression and mood disorders

Mood changes are common before and after the birth of a child. Eighty percent of new moms experience some form of “baby blues” related to hormone swings and other changes before and after birth. But what if those feelings don’t go away? Or get worse?

If you are concerned about yourself or someone you know, tell someone. Some warning signs are listed above at right.

Sheila CapestanyAn amazing number of parents are blindsided by postpartum depression (PPD), observes Sheila Capestany, MPH, MSW, executive director of Open Arms Perinatal Services, which provides doulas for low income mothers. “It’s normal to have mood swings and crying jags, but people need to know how to get help when it goes beyond that, and doesn’t improve with something like a walk or fresh air.” (For more ideas on ways to beat the blues, see “How to Cope” on Swedish Hospital’s PPD website).

There's help

Ongoing, deep depression and other maternal mood disorders are treatable, but it may take persistence and a perceptive health care provider to find the right referral or match. Help can range from talking with other moms in a supportive environment to professional counseling or medication, depending on the severity of the depression or other symptoms. Recovery is important not only for the mom’s sake, but also for healthy infant and child development.

Nancy GroteDue to cultural myths of maternal bliss and stigma about mental disorders, “many women feel ashamed of their feelings and don’t tell anyone they’re in crisis,” says Nancy Grote, PhD, Principal Investigator of MOMCare for perinatal depression and research associate professor at the University of Washington Social Work. She would like to see all pregnant and new mothers to be routinely screened for depression and suicide risk. Washington’s new law requiring suicide risk assessment and management training for all medical professionals will help raise providers’ awareness, but training and change will take time.

Progress and awareness

General awareness is growing too, as parents like Thomas Soukakas challenge the stigma and speak openly about what they’ve experienced and learned. The New York Times profiled several mothers in a recent series on findings about maternal mental illness, and noted that more than a dozen states have passed, or are considering, laws encouraging screening, education and treatment.

In Seattle, Grote is collaborating with the public health department to explore whether comprehensive, early intervention helps low-income women who are depressed during pregnancy. Women in the study face chronic stressors such as lack of food, poor or non-existent housing, unsafe neighborhoods, unemployment and histories of childhood abuse or neglect. The experimental MOMCare program provides collaborative depression care through culturally relevant evidence-based psychotherapy and/or pharmacotherapy plus practical support to meet basic needs from pregnancy through the first year of life.

Preliminary results suggest that the culturally appropriate, multi-faceted, collaborative care intervention provided by MOMCare, as well as Maternity Support Services of public health in Seattle and King County, reduces depression at a crucial stage before the birth. These months during the perinatal period offer a unique opportunity to improve women’s and children’s lives, Grote says. “They want not just to be good mothers, but also to work on fulfilling their hopes and dreams.”

Anyone can be affected

Low-income women, like those served by MOMCare and Open Arms, are twice as likely to have depression as women in the middle and upper classes, but postpartum depression and mood disorders cross all income, class and age lines.

Bottom line? As Thomas Soukakos tells new parents, be aware but not afraid. If warning signs like the ones below persist, talk to your health care provider.  Psychosis or suicide ideation, as experienced by Carol Soukakas, is rare but it happens, sometimes quickly.

Seek help immediately if you are concerned for yourself or someone you know. “Whenever you hear someone say something like ‘I don’t think I can go on,’ or ‘They’d be better off without me,’ ask about her intentions,” says Grote. “You won’t make it worse.”