Why Aren’t We Talking About Postoperative Depression?

woman in hospital bed hands over face after surgery

Surgery can be a life-changing event, whether you’re treating an emergency medical condition or finally getting a procedure that changes the way you look and feel about yourself. In the whirlwind of presurgical paperwork and meetings and consultations, though, there’s one issue a care team may skip over: postoperative depression.

It’s a strange problem for people to forget to mention, because it’s not uncommon. In a 2000 feature for Harvard Magazine, surgeons described it as an “understandable complication.”

So why aren’t we talking about it? The answer is complex, and it involves a number of stops along a rabbit hole of twists and turns that leave patients unprepared for the emotional aftermath of surgery. While depression may be “understandable,” that doesn’t mean it should be ignored; and refusing to acknowledge that it’s a risk doesn’t resolve the problem.

It’s also very treatable. Prepared patients, particularly those with underlying mental health conditions, can be more proactive about managing it if they’re forewarned.

Clinical Health Psychologist Steven Tovian, who works at Northwestern University in Chicago in addition to maintaining a private practice, told Talkspace one reason postoperative depression falls by the wayside is limited research into the subject. Theories about what causes it may abound, but they aren’t backed by detailed, substantial research that explores the phenomenon and delves into ways to treat it.

Without that information, it’s both harder to treat and more difficult to convince surgical care teams that advising patients could be advantageous for recovery. Cultural attitudes within the medical profession also create a barrier to frank discussions about mental health for surgical patients, which is bad news for those at risk. Continue reading Why Aren’t We Talking About Postoperative Depression?