Maternal Mental Health: Who’s Looking After Mum?


Shakira Akabusi, founder of StrongLikeMum and mother of two, discusses postnatal wellbeing as we shine a light on maternal mental health.

Awareness of mental health something that should be constantly championed, however, with a spotlight on Maternal Mental Health Week, I’m more passionate than ever about highlighting the importance of a mother’s mental wellbeing. 

Statistics currently suggest that as many a 1 in 5 women develop a mental health issue during pregnancy or the first year after childbirth. However, the area of maternal mental health is still relatively unexplored and issues are often overlooked or misdiagnosed.

With a parent’s wellbeing impacting on the wider family, including children. It’s important to shine a spotlight on this issue and encourage the development of knowledge in this field. 

Baby blues, mood swings or more?

It seems readily accepted these days that a woman will experience mood swings or ‘baby blues’ during the immediate postnatal period, with hormone imbalance being the most common explanation. But, how do we know the difference between mood swings and a potentially more serious issue?

Research shows that pre and postnatal ‘emotional difficulties’ have been documented since as early as 700 BC, however, it wasn’t until the late 1850’s that medical professionals recognised postnatal depression as a disorder. Still the most recognised disorder, PND is sometimes a misdiagnosis for other postpartum ailments; including, Postpartum psychosis, postpartum anxiety or postnatal OCD.

Declarations over the recent years from bloggers, experts and celebrities have certainly helped to expose the issue of maternal mental health however, many women still hide their symptoms for fear of being stereotyped by the lingering stigma.

shakira-akabusi-childrenOptions and outcomes: how can we help mothers dealing with mental health issues? 

Studies have shown that with the appropriate diagnoses, treatment and support, the majority of suffers can make a full recovery. However, it can take a substantial amount of time. One document released by the NHS in 2015 ‘Five year Forward View for Mental Health’ stated an ambition to increase specialist perinatal health support, in all areas of England by 2020/21. This scheme would allow at least 30,000 women each year to receive evidence-based treatment if needed. Nonetheless, despite these good intentions the waiting time for such treatment on the NHS can still span many weeks if not months.

Online forums and website can also offer support, alongside which the development of social media, has opened up the opportunity for like-minded people to share stories and support one another. However, the demanding time commitment that comes with early parenting may render these options scarcely achievable. Not to mention the plethora of misinformed, outdated and unqualified opinions littering the internet. Is medical treatment then the next best option?

Can you treat postnatal depression naturally?

Although it’s been well documented that the success rate of using medication to combat mental illness is high, this option may not be so suitable for pre and postnatal women. With the potential side effects including insomnia, nausea, and dizziness still undergoing research there is also a question mark around the effects of anti-depressants on breastmilk.

The National Institutes of Health released a statement in 2008 stating that ‘the question still remains whether the antidepressants or the untreated depression itself has more negative effects on the infant’. Generally, the consensus is that risks to the infant would be low to very low, however, perhaps for women already struggling with anxiety or stress, the weight of this decision will only increase levels of concern?
Fortunately, we live in a time which offers a variety of holistic treatments too. In 2010 the Daily Telegraph released an article saying that ‘specialist routines could help new mothers to decrease the chances of depression by 50%’. Senior author of the study Professor Mary Galea, of the University’s Physiotherapy Department, said ‘By improving new mothers’ wellbeing, this physiotherapy-based program has been shown to have a real impact on reducing the risk of PND.’

Now read: Postnatal Depression in Dads: Signs and Symptoms to Look out For

Mindfulness and maternal mental health

Hypnotherapy and mindfulness can also play a key role in helping to adjust thought patterns. Hypnosis has long been used during the prenatal period in the style of hypo-birthing, so perhaps the effects of this treatment would work well for some postnatal clients.

Dietary amendments have also been linked to anxiety in the past. With research once again in the early stages, no statistics are yet available but many people have claimed that certain foods, e.g. dairy products, caffeine and alcohol can increase their feelings of anxiety and depression. 

What causes maternal mental health issues?

There seems to be a general misconception that hormones are the chief catalyst for the onset of mental health issues. However, other factors such as lack of sleep, changes in routine, increased responsibilities and additional demands on relationships can also be triggers. Living with a partner suffering from depression or anxiety can also be a contributing factor. 

Alongside which, it’s important to highlight that not only women are affected by postpartum mental health. Approximately 1 in 28 fathers are also likely to suffer from depression in the first year after childbirth. Research undertaken by ITV found that although the majority of men still report no symptoms of PND, a further 1 in 3 dads is concerned about their mental health in some regard.

Me, myself and mind

shakira-akabusi-health-fitnessAs a mother who has personal experience with pre and postnatal mental health, I’m aware first hand of the challenges facing women who are balancing motherhood with psychological stress. When considering how best to combat this, it seems as though a combination of treatments can have the best effect. Certainly experimenting with various options worked for my recovery. I also believe it is imperative to find a medical professional that appreciates each case on an individual basis.

As with every pregnancy and labour, each mothers mental health journey is unique. Perhaps, the best we can do ourselves is to support one another. Highlighting this issue and encouraging more sufferers to come forward. With research and more analysis hopefully, we can shake off the stigma surrounding maternal mental health for good.

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