Every Mother Counts – 5/27/14

Maternal Mental Health is more than the absence of mental illness.
Mental illness pervades news stories on a tragically regular basis when we read about violent individuals so ill they can only see the world as a frightening, hostile place. But these situations fail to represent the real magnitude that mental illness takes on society.  Far more often,  people with mental illness suffer in silence, with very little attention paid to the impact their illness makes on their lives and families.  When it comes to maternal mental illness, we know that about 20% of pregnant and newly delivered mothers will suffer from a maternal mental health disorder. We read about mothers with “simple” cases of baby blues and mothers who become manic or incapacitated with depression as a result of hormonal imbalance and extreme sleep deprivation. We hear about mothers so floored with mental illness they attempt and often succeed in harming their babies, children or them selves to prevent them from living what they see as horrifying lives. We read a lot about individuals who suffer with mental illness, but far too little about systems of support created to help them; even less about what it takes to create mental health.

We think of maternal mental illness as something that only happens shortly after birth, but a new study conducted in Australia indicates that motherhood’s impact on a woman’s mental and emotional stability is far more long lasting than previously thought.  In fact, their data suggests that more mothers are depressed during their child’s fourth year than even during the oh-so-challenging first.  The conditions that seem to set women up for depression during year four are previous reports of depressive symptoms either in early pregnancy or in the first 12 months after childbirth, young maternal age (18-24 years), stressful life events/social adversity in the year prior to the four year follow-up, intimate partner violence, and low income.  The study concluded with recommendations that mothers be followed more closely and for longer periods of time to observe for symptoms of mental illness and they reinforced the need for a greater focus on mental health.

Most of what we read and hear about mental health is delivered through studies and stories about mental illness, not about the real meaning of mental health. The Department of Health and Human Services says mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.  We think when it comes to the full spectrum of mothering, the emotional, psychological and social wellbeing of mothers is as important as any other health factor.  In fact, in the presence of all the obstacles, frustrations, and challenges that motherhood presents, perhaps a woman’s ability to adapt mentally and thrive emotionally is her most important parenting asset.

What does it take to create maternal mental health?  In the absence of serious mental illness or chemical and hormonal imbalances, mental health is achieved in the same ways as physical health through nutrition, exercise, purposeful work and adequate rest, safety, security and community.  In instances where women suffer imbalances that lead to mental illness, returning to health requires therapy, support, and sometimes medication that are easily accessible and free from social stigma.

As we focus on maternal mental health during the month of May, we encourage women to support each other and create communities that strengthen healthy mothers and heal those who desperately need help. We also ask mothers to share their birth and motherhood stories with each other to highlight the range of experiences and emotions that help maintain a woman’s maternal mental health.