Naturally, most of the conversation on maternal mental health revolves around mothers as the mothers are directly affected and it is their mental health to be concerned about. Unfortunately, this provides us with a rather narrow perspective; in reality, those in the mother’s social circles may also be affected.
First, there is her spouse. Studies show that postnatal depression affects the marital relationship, as spouses may have difficulty understanding why the new mother feels depressed and anxious after welcoming a new family member. Furthermore, new fathers may not know how to support their wives as needed, and may be ill-prepared for the extra domestic and care-taking duties placed upon them. It’s possible that the marital relationship may become strained, which can be prevented with clear and open communication.
Secondly, there is the child. Extensive research shows that maternal depression, for example, gravely affects the bonding between mother and child. Due to the mother’s poor mental health, the mother is unable to adequately respond to the child’s needs which may lead to the child developing physical, emotional and cognitive issues. Children of depressed mothers have been shown to display behavioural problems and emotional difficulties more commonly compared to other children whose mothers are mentally healthy.
Although other (extended) family members and friends may also be affected, we thirdly focus on the mother’s working environment. Postpartum depression may prevent a mother from going back to work or in the worst-case scenario, cause her to quit altogether. Even if the mother returns to the workplace, research shows that productivity suffers when employees are dealing with mental health issues like depression or anxiety.
In sum, ensuring access to good maternal mental health care helps us all!
What can we do?
If you are reading this, and happen to be a mother, it is important to know that these feelings of sadness or anxiousness happen to other mothers as well, thus important to realise that you are not alone. A way to cope is by letting out your feelings, such as by talking to someone you trust, whether that is your spouse, family, close friend or co-worker. Getting some exercise has also been proven to help and fortunately, you don’t need to run a marathon to get that result! You could start by going out for a short walk or perform some gentle stretching by partaking in yoga and pilates.
For husbands and partners, it is recommended to make sleep and healthy meals a priority in the home for both yourself and your partner. With a little one that needs almost constant attention, both parents are likely to be exhausted. Thus, whenever the baby is asleep or contently awake, do encourage the mother to get some rest or take a nap. Chronic sleep deprivation is often the start of a downward spiral that may result in severely depressed feelings within the mother, and yourself, too.
Employers are encouraged to be mindful of the emotional turmoil and struggles that mothers are facing by juggling both professional and care duties, and are furthermore encouraged to find practical ways to meaningfully support mothers in their return to the workplace.
There are a few signs that anyone may want to look out for: if the mother is eating very little, or has difficulty sleeping due to the worries occupying her mind, encourage her to talk about it. Start the conversation gently, by asking her how she is doing, and pay attention while she speaks. It is important to not judge and to be careful to not rush into giving her advice, as she may simply want a listening ear from someone who supports and cares for her.
If these symptoms persist, encourage her to seek professional help and assist her to arrange an appointment with a midwife, nurse or mental health practitioner. The earlier the better. We can all make a difference in maternal mental health!
Dr Leoniek Kroneman,
Clinical consultant, SOLS Health