What are some of the Mental Health Problems Mothers Face?

In recent research, up to 1 out of every 5 mothers reports having some form of mental health problem. We should be thinking about screening for low level mental health issues and managing them in order to prevent escalation, where they may cause more serious problems as pregnancy progresses or during the postnatal period.

All women regardless of their background, culture, age, income level or race, may develop some form of perinatal mood or anxiety disorders. There are treatment options that have been well-researched and proven to be low-cost and highly effective that help women overcome and be able to thrive in their roles as mothers.

What we usually hear about is the post-pregnancy baby blues, which are mild mood symptoms, but these usually dissipate within a few weeks after birth. If they persist or symptoms worsen, this can develop into a different form of illness that requires attention and treatment; such as postpartum depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar mood disorder, or psychosis.

Mothers with postpartum depression can feel a range of strong emotions such as anger, irritability, sadness, lack of interest or apathy towards their baby, guilt because of these feelings, difficulty concentrating, lack of enjoyment, changes in sleeping patterns or appetite, and a sense of overwhelming hopelessness. In some cases, there may even be thoughts of harming herself or the baby.

Mothers typically worry about their babies, but if these worries are extreme and there is a genuine fear for the health and safety of the baby, this may cause panic attacks (shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, feelings of loss of control, numbness or tingling sensations. Mothers may fear leaving the house, or not being able to cope with meeting people with the baby, or not being ready to face the world.

Mothers with postpartum OCD report having recurring thoughts about themselves or their baby, that upset them because they are unwanted or make them uncomfortable, and come upon them suddenly. These fleeting mental images can frighten a mother, and make them feel a need to do things over and over (compulsive behavior) to attempt to reassure themselves or reduce the anxiety that is brought on by these thoughts. Although they are unlikely to act on any of these thoughts, the fact that they have them is upsetting.

Postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder is caused by the experience of childbirth that a mother felt was traumatic or frightening, or caused her to recall a past trauma in her life, over which she had no control. She may experience flashbacks that cause anxiety or avoid anything related to her childbirth experience, even talking about it or returning to the place she gave birth.

Bipolar mood disorders are challenging to diagnose, because they have two phases (high and low moods), and require attention to track their cycles. They do not have a particular pattern for duration. The high is called (mania or hypomania) and can last for a few days to a few weeks, followed by a low period (clinically called depression). It is often the family and friends who notice the mood shifts first.

Mothers who experience psychosis are considerably rare, but the impact of the illness is severe on themselves and their families that it is imperative to screen and treat these issues before they result in trauma or tragedy. Sufferers of psychosis report seeing images or hearing voices that those around them cannot, which are called hallucinations. They imagine someone telling them to do something, and feel a compulsion to act upon it at times. They may begin to believe certain things that aren’t true or distrust their family and friends around them. They may appear confused or distracted, suffer from memory loss, or seem wild or manic.

Women who have a history of mental health issues should be carefully assessed for the increased risk of developing issues in pregnancy and postpartum. It is important for all women to be able to access reliable quality mental health care during their pregnancy, in the first year after childbirth, and beyond.

Postpartum Support International (2020) Pregnancy and Postpartum Mental Health Overview

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