Today is World Maternal Mental Health Day, first established in 2014 to draw awareness to the many socio-emotional challenges perinatal families face. 1 in 5 birthing people and 1 in 10 partners worldwide experience a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder (PMAD) during pregnancy or postpartum, and yet only 25% of those struggling receive treatment.
There are a kaleidoscope of reasons why new parents don’t seek out help and end up suffering in silence, including stigma around mental health issues and lack of education, awareness, and routine screenings to assess maternal mental health risk factors.
There are also more nuanced reasons perinatal people often don’t disclose the extent of their suffering to loved ones or professionals. Author, therapist, and perinatal mental health pioneer Karen Kleiman MSW, LCSW highlights the “ambiguity” factor during this massive life stage transition: “because moods and other internal experiences are expected to fluctuate following childbirth, women sometimes decide it is best to brave any discomfort and hope it goes away by itself.” Often birthing people end up “white knuckling” it through this period on their own as a result, despite the fact that “research literature consistently demonstrates that communities with strong social support provide shelter and yield lower rates of postpartum depression.”
Shame around being judged as an “unfit, ungrateful, or bad” caregiver also heavily influences how much is shared, if any. And yet, especially with anxious, obsessive, or depressive thinking, the critical inner voice only gets louder when extreme distress is avoided, denied, or repressed. Kleiman reminds us, “Depressive thinking can inhibit attempts to deal appropriately with scary thoughts by distorting or exaggerating the possible outcomes of disclosing.” Fears that they are alone in their experience, will be labeled as “crazy,” or become institutionalized or separated from their baby against their are powerful shame-based rationales for avoiding treatment.
Above all, deeply embedded societal messages around motherhood being “the happiest time in a woman’s life” create an environment of toxic positivity where any presence of negative thoughts or feelings becomes taboo or forbidden. Only when the full spectrum of experience around this vulnerable life stage is accepted and shared freely will those struggling feel safe enough to seek help when they need it most. Let’s start today. #maternalMHmatters
Post by Sharon Itkoff Nacache ATR-BC LCAT LPAT PMH-C
Excerpts adapted from from Kleiman (2010) Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts.
Original Photograph by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash