This month, the world marks the celebration of two momentous occasions: Mothers’ Day as well as Global Maternal Mental Health Awareness Day. As we commemorate our ‘Supermoms’ for giving their never-ending support and care, we should also take this time to acknowledge their struggles in persevering through difficult times. With that said, how fluent are we in understanding mental illnesses that mothers may experience during and after pregnancy?
What is Perinatal Mental Illness?
Perinatal mental illness refers to the poor mental health of new mothers during their pregnancy and after giving birth (Maternal Health Task Force, n.d.). According to the World Health Organisation (WHO, n.d.), they found that in developing countries such as Malaysia, approximately 16% of new mothers suffer from poor mental health during their pregnancy, and approximately 20% postpartum (i.e., the period after birth).
Even as it is common for anyone to encounter ups and downs in response to significant life-changing events, becoming a new mother is no exception. Having a new baby can be one of the most exciting experiences one can have, yet significant changes can also be an “emotional rollercoaster” for a new mother. The emotional and physical toll experienced by a new mother or a mother-to-be could potentially develop into depression or anxiety, or other mental health disorders if the symptoms persist and are not recognised early.
Some of these symptoms may be experienced by you or someone you know: (Maternal Mental Health Now, n.d.; Postpartum Support International, n.d.).
- Crying for no apparent reason
- More irritable/angry than usual
- Excessive worrying/Anxious over the baby
- Have disturbing thoughts
- Extreme Sadness/Depressed
Why do Mothers get Affected?
Perinatal mental illness may be attributable to some of these factors (Maxwell, Robinson, & Rogers, 2018):
- Lack of social support
- Financial instability
- Intimate partner violence
- Unrealistic expectations
- The pressure to be a good mother based on societal expectations
Often times, when new mothers or expectant mothers feel depressed or anxious, they may not acknowledge their feelings or emotions due to the lack of awareness/understanding of why they feel the way they do. It could be that they feel guilty or embarrassed for feeling so because they believe that these feelings are not “normal”. After all, such emotions are often not talked about; instead, what is often spoken or shared about by family and friends are the joys of motherhood and their pregnancy. Ultimately, they may choose to resolve their struggles alone.
Feeling alone and having unrealistic expectations about motherhood can contribute to perinatal mental illness. However, it is important to realise that our expectations about motherhood are often derived from our observations of how our mothers raised us, how media paints motherhood (i.e., all sunshine and daisies), and how we observe other mothers with their own children. Unfortunately, what we observe is not always a complete reality. Motherhood doesn’t come with a manual, and there is no failproof method for being a good mother. There will be stressors coming from all directions; for instance, nursing mothers may face interrupted or disrupted sleep due to new night-time breastfeeding feeding patterns. Additionally, there could be an expectation to take care of household duties, all while being a good mother. If a new mother or expectant mother is living under unsafe conditions, there would be the added safety for themselves and their child to account for.
Mothers who belong to dual-income households face an additional dilemma. For those who work, there may be a need to perform at work or consider the household finances. They may either have to leave their careers to care for their babies or sacrifice bonding time with their children to ensure financial stability. Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of getting hired help or help from trusted family members and friends to babysit while they are at work.
A mother who continues to experience poor mental health may, in the long run, develop unhealthy behaviours or habits such as substance abuse, have self-harming tendencies or even suicidal thoughts. These in turn will affect her relationship with her new-born, and the development of the baby (Maternal Health Task Force, n.d.). For instance, past studies have found that perinatal mental health disorders could contribute to low birth weights of infants and impaired infant growth (Maternal Health Task Force, n.d.).
Knowing all of this now would hopefully make us more aware of the struggles that mother’s face. It is important for us to act now, as if these mental illnesses are happening to our own sisters and close friends. If you know of anyone struggling alone, try to be there for them and try to get them to seek help from a doctor or mental health professional.
Maternal Mental Health Now. (n.d.). Symptoms and Diagnoses. https://www.maternalmentalhealthnow.org/learn-more/symptoms
Maternal Mental Health Task Force. (n.d.). Perinatal Mental Health. https://www.mhtf.org/topics/perinatal-mental-health/
Maxwell, D., Robinson, S. R., & Rogers, K. (2019). “I keep it to myself”: A qualitative meta‐interpretive synthesis of experiences of postpartum depression among marginalised women. Health & social care in the community, 27(3), e23-e36. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/hsc.12645
Postpartum Support International. (n.d.). Pregnancy and Postpartum Mental Health Overview. https://www.postpartum.net/learn-more/pregnancy-postpartum-mental-health/
World Health Organisation. (n.d.). Maternal Mental Health. https://www.who.int/mental_health/maternal-child/maternal_mental_health/en/