Today is World Maternal Health Day, a day that aims to spread awareness of mental or psychiatric disorders that are prevalent in the first 1 000 days of life – to ensure access to mental health care during this vulnerable time.
Maternal mental health is the mental and emotional well-being of a woman from conception, through pregnancy, to the postpartum period, including the first 1 000 days – known as the perinatal period – of the infant’s life.
Dr Lavinia Lumu, a specialist psychiatrist at Akeso Crescent Clinic in Randburg, said many mothers experience some form of depression, anxiety or other psychiatric disorder during pregnancy, or in the 12 months after childbirth.
“Approximately one in five new mothers worldwide, and up to one in three in South Africa, may experience symptoms without even realising it. Psychiatric disorders in the perinatal period, such as anxiety or depression, are often missed or left untreated to the detriment of mother and baby. Research shows that treatment is beneficial for both, and for the family as a whole,” said Lumu.
Women are more prone to develop psychiatric disorders in the perinatal period because of the physiological changes, including hormonal fluctuations, which occur during pregnancy. Other factors such as poverty, migration, extreme stress, exposure to violence (domestic, intimate partner, sexual and gender-based), conflict situations, natural disasters, and low social support may also increase the risks for the development of psychiatric disorders such as perinatal depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety.
Dr Bavi Vythilingum, a specialist psychiatrist at Akeso Kenilworth Clinic in Cape Town, said perinatal psychiatric disorders can result in high-risk outcomes such as psychosis, suicide and infanticide if they are left untreated.
“Babies of mothers who have had untreated psychiatric disorders are also at high risk of developing behavioural, emotional, and mental health problems later on in life. Treatment can ensure that these risks disappear,” said Vythilingum.
Lumu said the mother’s partner or family are usually the first to identify symptoms of a potential disorder and assisting the new mother with urgent screening and intervention is imperative. She added that help can also include caring for the baby and other children and assisting with household duties.
“If a family member suspects that a new or expectant mother has a mental health problem, it is important to encourage her to seek help urgently from a healthcare professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, midwife, GP, or obstetrician,” advised Lumu.
Given the enormous changes that occur on becoming a new parent, Lumu said it’s important that mental health and well-being issues are dealt with as an important part of caring for new mothers and mothers-to-be.