It’s time to talk about maternal mental health

This week marks Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week. EMMA CONNOLLY talks to women involved in a new campaign to highlight the issue
It’s time to talk about maternal mental health
Laura Erskine with daughter Poppy.

AN AWARENESS campaign has been launched to highlight how common mental health issues are for women who are pregnant or in the first year of motherhood.

An initiative by the digital parenting community, the BabyDoc Club, it is Ireland’s first Maternal Mental Health Awareness campaign.

Its message #Askheragain is designed to remind partners, family members, friends and professionals to keep asking a pregnant or new mum how they are feeling and coping during this uniquely vulnerable time, known as the perinatal period.

It coincides with World Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, running from May 4 to May 10.

Following research with over 1,800 mothers in the BabyDoc Club (a third of whom are from Cork), the incidence of maternal mental health struggles surpassed the global average of one in five, with results somewhat elevated due to Covid-19.

Laura Erskine, parenting expert with the community, said: “Depression in the perinatal period cannot be underestimated. From the time a woman becomes pregnant to the first birthday of her child, she is uniquely vulnerable. It is up to all of us to talk more about the challenges we face when coping with the emotional, physical and hormonal changes that becoming a mother involves,” she said.

“One of the biggest challenges about having depression or anxiety as a new or expecting mum is that many symptoms can look similar to what most mums experience at this time.”

The mum-of-three added: “Feeling tired, a bit irritable or emotional, feeling overwhelmed or worrying about how your baby is feeding or sleeping are all normal.

“But if these feelings start to have a big impact on how you live your life, then you might be experiencing a maternal mental health problem.

“By raising awareness of how vulnerable our mental health can be as both an expectant and new mother, we are hoping to help mothers take self-care steps to help them to cope better during this transition period.”

Cathy Allen, a mum of two from Midleton.
Cathy Allen, a mum of two from Midleton.

Cathy Allen, a mum-of-two from Midleton, says the lack of control she felt when she first became a mum left her struggling with an anxiety she’d never felt previously.

The 37-year old remembers the pregnancy as difficult: “I had an old coccyx injury which was aggravated by the pregnancy and I couldn’t sit down for very long. I also fainted a lot so I was signed off work when I was five months pregnant which I found very hard.”

The support worker with Enable Ireland says Maitiú, now aged two and a half, was a very easy baby, but she would often wake up feeling sick to her stomach with worry for no reason.

“I found it was worse in the morning and night. I was fully able to function but I’d get overwhelmed at the thoughts of going out and what could go wrong so would often just stay home,” she said.

“I remember I’d also have irrational reaction to people if they were trying to help, or if I thought he was teething I’d be convinced he was in pain, that kind of thing.”

She describes herself as a very organised person and thinks perhaps the unpredictability of a newborn was what she struggled with.

“Sometimes, just saying it out loud to my husband, that I was feeling anxious helped. But also speaking to other mums at the same stage, even if they didn’t have anxiety, also helped.”

The feelings faded after a time, and now she is mum to 10-month-old Caelan — thankfully she didn’t experience any such negative feelings this time round.

“I’d totally advise anyone in that situation to talk to another mum and not to keep the feelings bottled up inside,” she said.

However, Laura feels that there’s still stigma out there when it comes to maternal mental health issues.

“The feedback from our BabyDoc Club mums when it came to admitting they were suffering from mental health issues and seeking help was worrying. 55% of them found it hard to ask for help, while a further 33% blamed themselves for not coping. Disturbingly, 17% felt that asking for help was a sign of weakness. Social media pressure to be the perfect parent added to feelings of shame and guilt for 23%, while 51% felt that admitting to mental health issues was a sign that they weren’t a good enough mother. One in five mums, or 22%, felt that they would be judged by family and friends if they admitted to mental health struggles,” she said.

The new CEO of Parentline, Aileen Hickey. Picture: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
The new CEO of Parentline, Aileen Hickey. Picture: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Head of Parentline, a free counselling service, Cork woman Aileen Hickie, agrees: “Stigma can prevent expectant and new mums from seeking help which can be very destructive. Mothers need to be able to talk openly about any issues and problems they are having whether mental, emotional or physical.”

Covid-19 is naturally a source of anxiety for new and expectant mums now, says Laura.

“Maternity hospital authorities have introduced a number of necessary restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus with respect to antenatal appointments, hospital visitors and the partner attendance during and after birth. Of course, this is very distressing for new parents-to-be and mums recovering from birth experience; however, the restrictions are necessary.

“It is apparent, however, that those who have recently given birth and those preparing to do so in the coming weeks and months need more reassurance and support. We must be mindful that maternal mental health in pregnancy and new mothers can be fragile.

“The lifestyle restrictions put in place to help stop the spread of Covid-19 mean this group will have little or no extended family support after the baby is born. The self-isolation required for pregnant and new mums will take its toll when they are at their most vulnerable in terms of hormones, sleep deprivation and the physical changes that occur before and after birth. Now, more than ever, we need to rally together and remember even small gestures of help and support will go a long way. Digital technology has thankfully enabled us all to stay connected so we may feel the embrace of our virtual village during these difficult times.”

BabyDoc Club has partnered with the charity Parentline and during the #Askheragain campaign, BabyDoc Club are encouraging people to donate €4, by texting PARENT to 50300.

The research revealed 55% mums experienced ‘Baby Blues’ in their first three months of motherhood.
The research revealed 55% mums experienced ‘Baby Blues’ in their first three months of motherhood.

MORE ABOUT THE RESEARCH

FOLLOWING research with more than 1,800 mothers in the BabyDoc Club digital parenting community, the incidence of maternal mental health struggles surpassed the global average of 1 in 5.

The research revealed 55% mums experienced ‘Baby Blues’ in their first three months of motherhood. These are low moods occurring about two days after birth, lasting about two weeks.

Some 35% mums experienced perinatal depression while pregnant or in the first 12-months of motherhood. This is diagnosed when symptoms persist for over a month. Symptoms may be mild for some but can be very severe for others and continue for many months.

While 39% reported that their maternal mental wellbeing was never assessed or addressed by the medical professionals they met with during pregnancy or as a new mum.

The most common symptoms experienced include:

  • Tearful - 80% o Low mood - 79% o Feelings of overwhelm and anxiety - 66%
  • Negative body image - 53%
  • Belief that weren’t a good (enough) mother - 51%
  • Unable to sleep - 43%
  • Feelings of anger at themselves, partner or baby - 41%

The main reasons cited by mums for struggling were :

  • Hormones - 72%
  • Physical exhaustion - 67%
  • Baby sleeping or settling issues - 48%
  • Traumatic birth experience - 36%
  • Breastfeeding issues - 30%
  • Social media pressure to be the perfect parent - 23%

Some 28% of mums had experienced a miscarriage, still birth or neonatal death. Over half (58%) of mums that had experience of baby loss reported that it negatively impacted on their mental wellbeing in a subsequent pregnancy or time as a new mum.

When it came to seeking help, 55% mums found it hard to ask for help, while a further 33% blamed themselves for not coping. 17% felt that asking for help was a sign of weakness.

One in five mums (22%) didn’t know where to go to get the help they needed for their maternal mental health issues. Nearly half, 47% went to their public health nurse or GP for help, almost a third (30%) went online to social media pregnancy and new parent support groups, just 6% asked for help from their maternity hospital.

The most effective forms of help identified by the BabyDoc mums with Maternal Mental Health issues were:

  • 53% - Talking to their partner
  • 42% - Exercising
  • 34% - Talking to a friend or family member
  • 31% - Reading about other mum’s experiences of maternal mental health difficulties
  • 31% - Talking to their public health nurse or GP
  • 21% - Getting help at home or with the baby
  • 16% - Taking medication o 18% - Talking to a counsellor
  • 12% - Practicing meditation or writing a daily gratitude journal

Almost all, 99% of the BabyDoc Club mums say there should be a national specialised maternal mental health support service for mums, and their loved ones, during the perinatal period.

The overwhelming feedback from the mums was their desire to share their personal maternal mental health journeys, to help another mum in a similar situation feel less alone, and prompt her to seek help sooner. These real-life stories have been included in an eGuide for the #Askheragain campaign which is free to download from the BabyDoc Club website.

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