Do you know that life changes around pregnancy make women more vulnerable to mental illness? For instance, postpartum depression can have a negative impact on a woman’s ability to function and thrive. Below are facts about maternal mental health and ways to improve it.
On May 1st of every year, World Maternal Mental Health Day draws attention to essential mental health concerns for mothers and families around the world.
Causes of Maternal Mental Health Disorders
Depression, anxiety and other maternal mental health conditions usually do not have one definite cause – something we can point to and say ‘that is the issue’.
Instead, they are likely to develop as a result of the fact that mums have just gone through a life-changing process called childbirth. They also have to go through a healing process while taking care of a little human that depends solely on them. In addition, they have to deal with sleepless nights while also struggling to function at work after their maternity leave. Some mums do not even get the emotional and physical support that they need from both their spouse and other people around.
Suicide is an important cause of death among pregnant and postpartum women. Psychosis is much less common but may also lead to suicide and in some cases even harming the newborn. Depression causes enormous suffering and disability and reduced response to the child’s need. Treating the depression of mothers leads to improved growth and development of their babies.
Women Hide Their Symptoms
Estimates are that 7 in 10 women hide or downplay their symptoms. However, what they refuse to realise is that without understanding, support, and treatment these mental illnesses have a devastating impact on them and the whole family.
Most mums usually feel alone and cannot share how they feel because of our cultural beliefs and because of fear of being judged. But the truth is that you are not alone and it is okay to ask for help.
Who is at risk of these disorders?
Virtually all women can develop mental disorders during pregnancy and in the first year after delivery. However, poverty, migration, extreme stress, exposure to violence (domestic, sexual and gender-based), emergency and conflict situations, natural disasters, and low social support generally increase risks for specific disorders.
Stillbirth and infant death are traumatic events with profound and lasting effects on bereaved families. Mothers with perinatal loss are at high risk for poor mental health. And as stated earlier, most African women hide their symptoms so there is no accurate depiction of how many women go through these.
Family Mental Health
Maternal mental health disorders affect the entire family. Many people do not realize that about 1 in 10 dads develop depression during this time as well. An integrated approach to family mental health allows both parents to move beyond the postpartum period as a thriving family unit.
Effects of maternal mental disorders after birth on the mother and the infant
After birth, the mother with depression suffers a lot and may fail to adequately eat, bathe or care for herself in other ways. This may increase the risks of ill health. The risk of suicide is also a consideration, and in psychotic illnesses, the risk of infanticide, though rare, must be taken into consideration.
Very young infants can be affected by and are highly sensitive to the environment and the quality of care, and are likely to be affected by mothers with mental disorders as well. Prolonged or severe mental illness hampers the mother-infant attachment, breastfeeding and infant care.
How to improve maternal mental health
1. Increasing awareness will drive social change to improve the quality of care for women experiencing maternal mental health illness. It will also reduce the stigma of maternal mental illness. We are encouraging mental health professionals, friends and relatives of new mums to ask her how she’s really feeling and encourage her to seek help.
2. Arrange for emotional support for mothers when symptoms are anticipated or present. This could include an immediate connection with other mothers and time alone or with a partner.
3. Plan for practical support. This could include making arrangements for someone who will help with food preparation, care of other children in the home, and providing time and space for the new mother to sleep.
4. Psychotherapeutic interventions centred on improving maternal competence and the quality of bonding between the mother and the baby. These interventions include Interpersonal Psychotherapy, Interaction Guidance, Child-Parent Psychotherapy, Family Meeting and support groups.
5. Early intervention in breastfeeding difficulties. For some mothers, breastfeeding can afford protection by lowering the stress response. However, breastfeeding is only protective as long as it is a positive experience.
6. Providing additional support and counselling during pregnancy and the postpartum period including pre-pregnancy consultation, medication management, and psychotherapeutic interventions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
have jointly initiated a programme to integrate mental health needs into existing
maternal and child health policies, plans and activities. Simply, there can be “no
health without mental health.”
Did you experience any maternal mental health disorder? Or do you know any mum who did? Share with us, let us hear your story so that we can help other mothers and mothers to be.