With this month being World Maternal Mental Health Month, it feels like the perfect time to discuss this topic which is near-and-dear to my heart.
I’d already been working as a therapist – specializing in trauma and grief and loss – for three years when I became pregnant with my son. As a first-time-mom, I had no idea what to expect for pregnancy and childbirth, so I started religiously listening to a podcast called The Birth Hour, where women share their pregnancy and birth stories. I was immediately struck by how almost every pregnancy or postpartum experience included some component of a mental health struggle. And in many of the episodes, the women were too ashamed to reach out for help until their symptoms became severe. I started reading and learning more about maternal mental health, and before I knew it, a new passion had blossomed.
Maternal mental health (or perinatal mental health, as we refer to it in the clinical world), refers to the range of disorders – including anxiety, depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, psychosis and more – that can occur during pregnancy or the postpartum period. One in five women are estimated to experience a mental health disorder during the perinatal period, with anxiety and depression being the most common complications of childbirth.
Postpartum depression and anxiety are different from the “baby blues,” which are periods of sadness or mood swings due to hormonal shifts. Many women – up to 80 percent – report experiencing the baby blues. They can mirror the experiences of postpartum depression and anxiety, but with one big difference – the baby blues only last up to two weeks. Anything after two weeks should be considered a maternal mental health disorder and the mom experiencing symptoms should seek help.
Moms (both newbies and veterans alike) have long struggled with mental health concerns, but the COVID-19 pandemic made them exceptionally worse. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, almost 70 percent of mothers in the U.S. reported that pandemic-related stress and worry damaged their health. Another study from Harvard found that pregnant and postpartum people have experienced higher rates of PTSD, depression and anxiety during COVID, compared to the general public.
With many professionals calling the present situation a perinatal mental health crisis, it’s crystal clear we must start talking about maternal mental health – and what better time than Mental Health Awareness Month?
Here are 6 steps you can take in your everyday life to raise awareness about maternal mental health and help our beloved moms get the treatment they need and deserve:
- If you’re struggling, seek help.You don’t need to suffer in silence for another minute. Help is waiting for you. If you need to talk to someone right away, call the Postpartum Support International (PSI) helpline* at 1-800-944-4773. Get in touch with your insurance company to see what local therapists are in-network for you. See if there’s a clinician in your area trained in perinatal mental health (they’ll have the letters PMH-C in their title). Check out a support group for moms. One of the benefits of COVID-19 is that pretty much all mental health services can be offered virtually, if you prefer – this can be a great option for busy moms!
- Check in on the moms in your life.Many moms don’t talk about their mental health struggles because they feel ashamed; they feel like they should “have it together” and are embarrassed they might not. So it can help when a trusted friend or family member starts the conversation. The next time you talk to a mom in your life, ask her how she’s doing. If she gives a quick “good” or “fine” response, gently dig a little deeper if it feels appropriate – follow-up with “no really, how are you? I know it can be hard out here for moms.” Opening up the conversation might help her share if she’s struggling.
- Educate yourself on disparities.Did you know that black women/birthing people are twice as likely to experience a mental health disorder, but half as likely to receive treatment, compared to their white counterparts? Or that black women die during pregnancy/childbirth at 3-4 times the rate of white women? Educating yourself on and spreading awareness around the disparities within maternal mental health care is critical to saving lives and increasing treatment for those who need it the most.
I hope this gives you some ideas for how you can make a difference on this important topic. Together, we can end the shame and stigma around mental health disorders in motherhood!
*An important disclaimer for moms and non-moms alike: the PSI helpline is not equipped to handle mental health emergencies. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or message Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741. These services are available 24/7.
Lauren Abdill, MSW, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker in New Jersey, currently working towards her certification in Perinatal Mental Health. She was recognized as uLead’s Young Professional of the Year in 2016. Lauren can be reached at [email protected].