January 28, 2021

Joanna Kountanis, M.D., named a U-M Depression Center Rachel Upjohn Scholar

Kountanis will conduct the first-ever study on the use of steroids to curb postpartum PTSD following a traumatic birth experience.

Joanna Kountanis, M.D.

Joanna Kountanis, M.D., clinical assistant professor of anesthesiology and clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology, has been named a winner of the U-M Depression Center’s 2021 Rachel Upjohn Scholar award. The award recognizes researchers whose work focuses on depression, bipolar disorder, and other related illnesses.

Kountanis will investigate how the administration of a single dose of glucocorticoids given to women six hours after a traumatic birth experience — such as an emergency cesarean delivery or postpartum hemorrhage — may impact the likelihood of developing postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although not yet a target for routine clinical screening, postpartum PTSD may occur in 3-15% of women after a traumatic birth, and co-occurrences  with postpartum depression are frequent.

“Suffering from a postpartum mental illness has far-reaching consequences for women and children,” Kountanis said. “If successful, this study has the potential to address many of the current shortcomings present when evaluating women’s postpartum mental health both clinically and within research.”

Kountanis said that although this is the first study to look at this treatment following a traumatic birth experience, previous studies suggest that a dose of steroids may minimize or prevent PTSD symptoms after other traumatic experiences.

Kountanis’ team also will use a mobile app to maintain contact with patients who had a traumatic birth experience. Patients will use the app to self-report symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress, which may allow researchers to assess postpartum mental health issues as they develop.

“We chose Dr. Kountanis as a recipient of one of the Rachel Upjohn Awards because postpartum depressions and PTSD are frequent and serious, increase risk of suicide, yet too often go unrecognized and are not well understood or treated by clinicians. Those who suffer and those who treat share the need for data that will enhance precision treatment approaches,” said John Greden, M.D., director of the Depression Center. “Dr. Kountanis’ work also demonstrates the power of interdisciplinary collaborations among programs and departments; they often are essential if we are to advance our knowledge.”  

The Rachel Upjohn Scholar Awards program was established in 1996 and honors Rachel Mary Upjohn Meader, who was a longtime supporter of the mission and work of the Depression Center.