May is Maternal Mental Health Month and World Maternal Mental Health Awareness Day falls on the first Wednesday of May. This year, World Mental Health Awareness Day is on May 4, 2022, right in the middle of CMHA's Mental Health Week.
Our mental health is a delicate but powerful thing. It's so important for us, as mothers and as humans, to speak out about mental health and seek help when needed.
According to wmmhday.postpartum.net, an estimated 1 in 5 women have a maternal mental health disorder and more than 75% of women who suffer from maternal mental health disorders go undiagnosed and untreated. This results in suffering for the women, their babies, as well as their partners and families.
Below, Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe shares her experience with postpartum depression on CTV's The Social. Dr. Wijayasinghe is part of Toronto's @pandemicpregnancyguide as well as primary care outreach at Women's College Hospital.
Q&A With Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe
We reached out to Dr. Wijayasinghe to get some more answers and perspectives on maternal mental health:
“An estimated 1 in 5 women have a maternal mental health disorder and more than 75% of women who suffer from maternal mental health disorders go undiagnosed and untreated.” Why do so many go undiagnosed?
Despite mental health being something that is being discussed more openly, there is still such a strong stigma in disclosing and asking for help. This is even more difficult for new parents as there is internal and external pressure to feel nothing but happiness during this major life event.
We also tend to dismiss some of the symptoms of depression/anxiety in the early days as due to lack of sleep (which does contribute greatly) and can feel guilty reaching out for help.
From a healthcare side, we need to do better for our patients. From day one, we tend to focus our attention on the new baby and less on how parents are coping which results in missing these important discussions with parents about how they are coping and screening for mood disorders.
Are there other perinatal mental health reactions or disorders other than depression? What are some symptoms to look out for?
Baby blues are common and affect most people in the early weeks postpartum. The difference between the blues and depression are that the symptoms lift with blues but persist with depression.
Postpartum depression can also present up to a full year after delivery so something to keep an eye out for even after those initial months. The symptoms to look out for postpartum depression include low mood, poor sleep, difficulty with focus, difficulty bonding, sadness or guilt consuming your thoughts, loss of interest in things you usually enjoy.
In more severe cases, there can be a rare but serious condition called postpartum psychosis that can present with symptoms of delusions and hallucinations. Postpartum anxiety is another condition that can occur that can present with increased worry, rumination and panic attacks.
What are the first steps one would take to seek help?
Speak to your doctor and ask for help. If this isn't a safe space, there are resources online that can help you find a therapist who specializes in this area. Here are some suggested online resources:
‣ Postpartum Support International
‣ Perinatal Mental Health Alliance for People of Color
‣ Healthy Parents Healthy Children
‣ Maternal Mental Health Now
If you don't feel ready to speak to someone in healthcare, let a family or friend know that you are struggling so they can support and help you reach out for help if that time comes.
If you have had mental health concerns prior to pregnancy, you can speak to your healthcare provider to put resources in place for the postpartum time in the form of counselling or more as needed to help you in case it's needed. If you are having thoughts of self-harm or harm to your child, please seek emergency support.
How can partners, friends, and family help and provide support?
Be present. Lighten the load by taking something off their plate like food duties/laundry/cleaning. Try not to place your expectations upon the new parents as to how they should be feeling/responding.
If you are concerned, bring it up gently and hold space for your loved one. It can feel very isolating after delivery and knowing that they have a safe space to be honest and open can be very impactful.
If you are concerned about the safety of your loved one, seek out help. If they bring up that they are struggling, see if you can support them by seeking out support in the form of seeing their healthcare provider or reaching out to a therapist.
What advice do you have for women who may need help but are worried about the stigma?
I see you and I'm sending a lot of love. This is not an easy thing to seek help for and the guilt is huge. I felt this with our first and I wish now that I had sought out help earlier. Suffering through 6 months of postpartum anxiety was really hard and made it difficult for me to bond and feel present with our little one. Despite speaking about mental health and encouraging my patients to do it, I couldn't do it for myself.
With our second pregnancy, before even speaking about the pregnancy changes, I asked for help. I brought up my worry early with my family doctor and she referred me early to the perinatal mental health team at Women's College Hospital who guided me through pregnancy and postpartum. It made a world of difference to know that I had a team of care if needed. I connected with my therapist early on and booked regular appointments to see her.
Postpartum is a vulnerable time, so before you get there, take a moment to reflect and know who your supports are and who you can lean on. It's ok to ask for help. You'll need it along the way of this parenting journey so it's good practice to start asking now :)