05 May Maternal Mental Health

May 1st is the beginning of Maternal Mental Health month, which highlights mental health concerns affecting mothers and families across the globe. Maternal mental health is an important issue. Across the world, around 1 in 5 new mums suffer from some sort of perinatal mood and anxiety disorder or PMAD.

Having a baby is a huge life event. The hormonal changes around pregnancy, and the enormous impact pregnancy and parenthood have on lifestyle, make women vulnerable to mental illness in the perinatal period. Symptoms can develop at any time, from conception, throughout pregnancy and during the first year after childbirth.

Common Mental Disorders Experienced During Pregnancy and After Birth

Mums can experience a number of mental health disorders during pregnancy and after the birth. The problems can range from low mood to psychosis. New mums and pregnant women can get postnatal and antenatal depression, postpartum anxiety, postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder, postpartum bipolar, postpartum psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following the birth.

A Hidden Problem?

Experts estimate that as many as 7 in 10 women conceal or cover their problems. Too many women feel ashamed of their symptoms. This can make them more likely to experience depression and less likely to access the help they need. Without the right care, mental health disorders can be devastating for the women affected as well as their families.

Breedagh Hughes from the Royal College of Midwives said that postnatal depression is still a taboo topic.

There is this societal expectation that when a woman gives birth she should be happy, jolly and delighted with herself. In fact, women who suffer from post-natal depression then try to compensate by trying to be a perfect mother, but emotionally there is nothing there.”1

Women who have experienced perinatal mood and anxiety disorders report that they’ve suffered pain and trauma as a result. As many as nine out of ten people with mental health problems said that they’d experienced stigma. So, it’s important to increase awareness and understanding.

No One is Immune

No one is immune to mental health problems in the perinatal period. They can affect women of every age, race, income and background. However, the good news is that there are many effective treatments available to help mothers recover. Hopefully, increasing awareness of maternal mental health, and providing better access to therapy, medication and specialist mother and baby units will mean that women in need will get the help they need.

Mental Health and the Family

Maternal mental health problems affect the whole family. If a mother is unwell, it can be increasingly challenging to function effectively. Some people turn to alcohol or drugs as an emotional crutch. This can affect the healthy development and wellbeing of an infant or unborn child. A survey by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, shows that 1 in 8 partners also experience mental health problems. Sadly, most received no support.2 The World Mental Health Day experts recommend supporting the whole family’s mental health. Enabling parents and children to thrive as a family unit.

Managing Mental Health Problems

If you’re struggling, it’s important to get help as soon as possible. See your GP, midwife or health visitor. The sooner you act, the sooner you can get the help you need to feel better. The right treatment will depend on your symptoms but could include:

  • Medication: Medication can make an enormous difference to women with depression, anxiety, OCD and puerperal psychosis. The right drug treatment can control symptoms, allowing you the space and time to heal. There are many effective medications that are safe during breast-feeding. Talk to your GP about the pros and cons of treatment, so that you can make the right choice for you.
  • Talking therapies: Evidence-based psychological therapies such as interpersonal therapy can help you talk through your feelings and work through ways to cope. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a type of counselling. CBT helps you change negative ways of thinking so that you can better deal with panic attacks, anxiety and stress.
  • The Wellbeing Plan: The Wellbeing Plan is endorsed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). It can help you think about your emotions and the help you might need during pregnancy and after childbirth. It can help you structure your thoughts. Consequently, making it easier to start a conversation about your mental wellbeing with your partner or a healthcare professional.
  • Self-help: There are ways to build resilience and deal with feelings of depression. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting enough rest and sharing with friends can all help. However, it’s still important to access professional support.

Get Help and Find Out More: There are excellent sources of information and support. PANDAS Foundation support women with perinatal mental health problems as well as their networks (friends, family and even employers). They also campaign to increase awareness and decrease stigma. They offer help lines, support groups and forums. The Association for Postnatal Illness provides information and telephone support on 020 7386 0868.


1Jayne McCormack (2016) ‘Post-Natal Depression: Speaking out about ‘secret stigma’’ BBC News, 2 November Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-37832567 [Accessed 4 May 2020]

2 Karina Russell (2017) ‘Maternal Mental Health – Women’s Voices’ Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists. Available at: https://www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/patients/information/maternalmental-healthwomens-voices.pdf [Accessed 4 May 2020]

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