Having a baby may seem like the most wonderful experience in the world, but for about one in five women pregnancy and birth can be fraught with mental-health issues that can have long-lasting effects on both mother and child if not addressed.
Throw in a pandemic lockdown, and the risks are even greater.
“I think that mental health has often been overlooked,” says Martha Traverso-Yepez, a community health researcher at Memorial University’s faculty of medicine. “The mental health of the mother is so important because it really has a great impact on her, on the family and on the baby.”
Traverso-Yepez recently teamed up with MUN nursing instructor Caroline Porr and others to conduct research on perinatal mental health.
Their study took the form of workshops with mothers and health professionals to identify the needs of women during and after the birth of a child, and included a public town hall at the farmers' market in St. John’s.
Out of 30 mothers consulted, 24 reported no formal screening for mental-health concerns.
Traverso-Yepez says she hopes the formation of a new mental-health alliance will help change that.
“One of the problems we observed in the research is that mothers don’t talk about it. Sometimes it becomes a fear that what they feel doesn’t match with the blissful ideals of motherhood, and they feel ashamed that they’re not enjoying it.”
She said health professionals often don’t bring it up “because they’re afraid to open a Pandora’s Box.”
This can be serious. Dismissing postpartum depression as simply the “baby blues” can lead to more complications if it lasts beyond the typical two- to three-week period.
And while socioeconomic status plays a role in successful early motherhood, Traverso-Yepez said, it is not the most important factor in successful bonding.
The most important factor is support.
“What we are seeing is that the extended family doesn’t exist anymore, especially these days during COVID-19,” Traverso-Yepez said.
“Imagine a new mother or a single mother with a baby or two babies or three, having to be alone with all this stress that raising a baby means.
“It’s not individuals that we have to look at, but the whole social environment. What are we doing to support new families raising children?”
Lost in the shuffle
Erin O’Reilly understands the importance of community supports for women as they go through pregnancy and childbirth.
A former nurse, O’Reilly chairs the Doula Collective of Newfoundland and Labrador. She recently lobbied the provincial government to allow doulas to be present for childbirth despite stringent visitor restrictions imposed during the pandemic.
Position Statement regarding doula support for in-hospital births during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a Collective we are...Posted by Doula Collective of Newfoundland and Labrador on Tuesday, May 12, 2020
Doulas can fill a role when spousal and other health care supports may not be sufficient.
“There’s a gap in care because they leave the hospital, and then there’s not a tremendous amount of follow-up,” she says. “There are a few phenomenal family doctors who so make sure they’re keeping close touch with their clients after they have their babies, but for the large part, they’re kind of lost in the shuffle after they go home with their infants.”
Knowing any history of mental health problems is also crucial.
“If there are any issues with predisposing factors like social conditions or previous mental health diagnoses, those women are really at high risk and they’re kind of getting lost.
“There are a lot of things especially going on right now in the world that are just amplifying that level of stress to such a high degree that I think it’s more important now than ever that they have these supports.”
Asked last week about childbirth supports, Health Minister John Haggie said he’s still hearing pleas to loosen restrictions.
“The sort answer is that it is under consideration,” he said. “The challenge is, when would that make sense from a public health point of view. Our vulnerable areas are around hospitals. They are both areas to protect and areas of potential spread, so there’s risk in going into hospital because you could acquire it but there’s also risk of bringing it into hospital because you could spread it.”
— With files from Tara Bradbury
Peter Jackson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering health for The Telegram.