India launched its mental health program in 1982. Almost 38 years later, even as the mental health conversation is picking up and laws being reformed, there is barely any mention of any streamlined mental health programs, focusing on maternal mental health.
There is almost a complete absence of mental health specialists in primary medical care settings (nursing homes, gynaecology centers & pediatric setups), which deal with children & mothers. Albeit, there are no surprises then that maternal mental health remains one of the most ignored dimensions of mental health care.
Why is understanding maternal mental health important? As mentioned in my last article, 1 in 4 pregnant women & new mothers, experience mental health issues and emotional distress. Not to mention that this is also a public health issue, and demands as much attention as other health issues.
A woman goes through multiple changes during and after her pregnancy. These changes can be categorized as physical, emotional & social changes. There is enough literature on the significant amount of physical changes that a woman goes through on a weekly basis during the course of pregnancy.
Maternal prenatal mental health problems, if left untreated can have serious long-term negative consequences, not only for the woman but also for the infant, child, and wider family. Severe prenatal maternal anxiety can have a negative impact on a child’s emotional, cognitive, and behavioral development well into adolescence, which is particularly marked in boys. Untreated postnatal depression can have a significant negative effect on the development of a positive mother-infant attachment relationship and has been found to be linked to cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems in children.
‘Maternal mental health’ can be defined as the psychological and emotional wellbeing of women during the pre-natal period, that is, during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postnatal period.
Several factors can have an effect on a woman’s mental and emotional wellbeing during pregnancy and the postnatal period. Some of these factors include factors that are “intrinsic” and related to a woman’s own genetic and familial history as well as her personal mental health history. “Extrinsic” or external factors that moderate a woman’s emotional state during this period include the woman’s life & social circumstances. Difficulty in these external areas can contribute to mental distress and increase the risk of developing mental health issues.
It’s important that healthcare workers and mental health professionals, work with women and their families to identify the areas where improvement is needed and provide guidance in that respect. The overall aim needs to be to help identify women and their families, the resources which will support them in maintaining positive mental health. This, however, will not be possible if women’s mental health is not viewed seriously as a topic as a concern.
In the next article, we will talk about some of the most common mental health concerns faced by new mothers.