For many women around the world, becoming a mother is a joyous and exciting time. However, for many, the process can also be fraught with anxiety and distress. According to the World Health Organization, roughly 10-13% of pregnant women worldwide experience a mental disorder, primarily depression. In developing countries, these statistics raise to up to 19.8% of pregnant women suffering from mental disorders. Virtually all women are at risk for developing mental disorders during pregnancy and in the first year post-delivery, highlighting the need for proper mental health care for new mothers.
What is maternal mental health?
Maternal mental health is in the spotlight now more than ever, and for good reason. Postpartum mental disorders are on the rise, and honest awareness campaigns from high-profile parents such as Chrissy Teigen show that maternal mental health does not discriminate.
Maternal mental health encompasses the stress, frustration and struggles of parents and parents-to-be in dealing with conditions ranging from infertility, loss, pregnancy, the postpartum period, and early parenting.
The potential for anxiety and depression accompany all stages of pregnancy and early motherhood. The most common mental health condition in the peripartum period is postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is a serious mental illness affecting emotional and behavioral health, often characterized by sadness, hopelessness, anxiety and feelings of detachment from the child for longer than two weeks after childbirth.
Research from the Mayo Clinic also suggests that about 14 to 23 percent of all pregnant women experience depression during pregnancy. The symptoms of depression may go unrecognized during pregnancy due to changes in sleep and energy level, appetite and libido that are often attributed to symptoms of pregnancy.
What are the signs of mental illness to look for in expectant and new mothers?
Globally, maternal mental health is considered a major public health challenge. The signs and symptoms of depression during pregnancy are the same as those that occur in the general population, but they are all-too-often overlooked. Additional clues indicating depression during pregnancy include excessive anxiety about the baby, low self-esteem, the inability to enjoy activities, poor adherence to prenatal care, smoking or drinking alcohol during pregnancy, poor weight gain due to an inadequate diet, and even thoughts of suicide.
If a pregnant or new mother you know is experiencing symptoms including sadness or hopelessness, frequent crying, feeling overwhelmed, frequent worrying and struggling with sleep, eating and feelings of anger, or disconnection from baby, it may be time for an evaluation. It is especially critical to support mothers struggling with mental health disorders, as the impact of such conditions also affects the health of the baby. In a study by the American Psychological Association, data supported a relationship between the functional limitations and chronic childhood illnesses of children with mothers who were more symptomatic. Young infants are highly sensitive to their environments, and mothers suffering from postpartum depression may struggle to adequately care for herself and her child.
How can I support a friend or loved one?
With many symptoms of maternal mental health disorders often mistakenly attributed to biological changes during pregnancy, it is vital to have open and honest conversations with your loved ones. While it is common for new mothers to experience the “baby blues”, these emotions generally are mild, and fade within a few days to two weeks.
Connect with your loved one and help them to get as much rest, support, and self-care as realistically possible during pregnancy and after childbirth. If the blues have not faded after two weeks, or if you are observing inadequate care for mother or child, encourage them to talk with a therapist, their OB/Gyn, family practitioner, or pediatrician. The National Institute for Health initiative “Moms’ Mental Health Matters” outlines how partners, family and friends can best help their loved one by knowing the signs of depression and anxiety, listening to the new mother, supporting with household tasks or watching the baby and encouraging mom to seek help with a mental health care provider if needed.
What are the benefits of mental health support for mothers?
Many women may suffer in silence, making communication with a therapist and treatment for depression during pregnancy essential. Similar to other types of depression, peripartum and postpartum depression can be treated successfully with a well-rounded combination of psychotherapy, medication, lifestyle changes and support systems.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is widely recommended as the first-line treatment for maternal depression and anxiety, alongside mother support groups, good nutrition, a stable exercise routine (when medically permitted) and resting as much as possible. Prescribed antidepressants can be used to treat major depressive disorders and are often a critical aspect of treatment. A psychiatrist or OB/Gyn can walk a new mom through the risks and benefits of antidepressant treatment during pregnancy and the post-partum period..
Depression during pregnancy and postpartum depression are treatable conditions. With proper treatment and early intervention, most new mothers find relief from their symptoms. There is nothing more important than a healthy mother, and her ability to enjoy and bond with her baby.
- C. Fogarty