At our core, we are all programmed to ensure the survival of the species. Our DNA is put together in such a way that we know that we need to support future generations. However, this inherent drive can have a dangerous impact on those genetically made to keep the human race going: mothers. Now, before we go any further, while this piece is looking at maternal mental health from a biological and sociological stance, we do not want to make any assumptions or claims about family dynamics or the role of a “mother”. Families come in all shapes and sizes nowadays, which is one of the more positive aspects of the 21st Century – balancing out the terrifying notion that we live in a world with a TV show called “Naked Attraction”. But I digress. People who at first had thought that children weren’t a part of their future now can raise a family, whether that picture includes a traditional “mother” figure or not. However, throughout all this sociological progress, we must keep discussing the mental health of women during pregnancy and after giving birth. Maternal mental health is a really pressing issue for the healthcare system and yet we never seem to be really paying much attention to it. Where are the news headlines reporting new funding for treatments or support systems available, in the way it does for youth mental health?
World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics highlight that 10% of pregnant women and 13% of those who have just given birth experience a mental disorder. That’s at least a tenth of the perinatal experiences manifesting into a mental health issue. Depression is the most common condition experienced within the maternal mental health spectrum, leaving some women to feel extremely unhappy, suicidal and even take their own lives if they don’t receive suitable help. This is evidently a global issue, with developing countries reporting higher levels of perinatal mental health; however, if we look at things closer to home, we learn just how much UK expecting and new mothers are struggling.
While we still are facing around 1 in 10 women developing a mental health disorder during pregnancy or the first year of after the birth, another shocking statistic comes to light. 7 in 10 of these women will downplay their condition dramatically or not admit to it. That means that most of the women who are experiencing either of the 2 most frequent maternal mental health issues of anxiety or depression are suffering in silence to an extent. This is never the right move. If these feelings are left untreated, they will fester and develop, worsening into much more dangerous illnesses which can put the life of the mother and sometimes others (including the new baby) at great risk. Bringing a new child into the world is typically a beautiful time for families, filled with wonderful hopes and dreams for their future. And yet, at least a tenth of these experiences are hindered by untreated mental health conditions.
Step one, we need to know why women aren’t discussing these issues when they’re experiencing them. Why do they not feel able to say “I am not okay”? It’s easy to make an educated guess at the answer. As with so much of mental health, there is an immense stigma. It’s not seen as acceptable to go through a flawed or imperfect experience during or after pregnancy. There’s a worry that you’ll be judged or shunned by your community for not being constantly overjoyed at the new member of your family; which will only compound the levels of anxiety felt.
If this is true, then the answer is simple. Get talking.
Every now and then a celebrity will reveal how they struggled with their perinatal mental health. This is welcomed with open arms, thanks to the profile it gives maternal mental health; although sometimes the cynics will doubt their sincerity and suspect their motives are publicity-based. Nonetheless it helps as it forces us to think about the mental health during the perinatal period. It still places a spotlight on an issue that so many mothers encounter. All we now need to do is find a way to turn that spotlight on without relying on a big-name actress, singer or other celebrity. To show that perinatal mental health is a common problem and you don’t need to be famous to have your experience heard. We need to show up for expectant and new mothers.
Anyone who comes into contact with a pregnant woman or new mother can support them in their mental health journey. This week marks Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 and it forces us to consider our roles in this wider picture of perinatal mental health. Are we ensuring the suitable procedures are in place to look after working mothers during their pregnancy? Are we finding ways to support their relaxation and ease pre-birth worries? Or maybe we need to evaluate the way we portray what the experience should be like post-birth. As usual, the media has a large role to play, to help showcase a more honest reality of our society; but while we wait for the Hollywood big-wigs and newspaper moguls to wake up, each of us can make a small difference. We can each help our mothers, sisters, daughters, cousins, friends, colleagues or even total strangers to feel able to speak out about how they might be feeling. Make sure you’re there with a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit to listen to their experiences and let them know they are not alone. Once they recognise that fact, anything is possible.
Contributed by Elena Jones, One Stop Social Team.
While you're here...
One Stop Social has a range of resources on our site at your disposal if you’re working with a mental health case, whether perinatal or not. Understanding how people can react in different situations and how their emotions can manifest is an important skill when facilitating change, so researching different tools will always be a beneficial move for your practice.