May is Global Maternal Mental Health Month

By Annie Murray, Ph.D.

This month we celebrate Global Maternal Mental Health Month as a way to bring awareness to the prevalence of pre and post-natal mental health issues around the world. Post-partum depression (PPD) is not unique to the United States. Recent world-wide statistics suggest that 13% of women experience post-partum mood disorders, primarily depression and anxiety. Mothers who experience violence, poverty, migration, natural disasters, racism, extreme stress, and lack of family or community support are most vulnerable. Identification and timely treatment for maternal mental health disorders is vital not only for mothers, but also for the health and well-being of their babies.

A mother and baby in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by Josh Estey.

Although the rates of PPD are similar around the world, the manner in which mothers experience PPD may appear very differently. Just as various cultures are unique and nuanced, so can the presentation of post-partum mood symptoms; therefore, we must always consider the cultural context of new mothers if we are to offer meaningful care and solutions. Mothers from different cultures, contexts, and backgrounds may experience and respond to post-partum mental health challenges differently.

When pregnant or post-partum women experience depression in one context, they may share their feelings with close friends and family. In others they may not express feeling sad or down, symptoms which are traditionally viewed as Western psychological symptoms, but instead describe experiencing headaches, back pain, or other somatic complaints, as well as fatigue, difficulty sleeping, feeling heavy-headed or like their head is not there.

Research suggests that long-standing social norms in some places, including where there may be high rates of gender-based discrimination and violence, may contribute to the maternal mental health issues of women. Where there is a preference for boys, mothers who give birth to girls have described feeling less bonded to their babies because of social and family pressures. In some areas of the world, women are isolated for a 40-day period after giving birth, which may also contribute to their subjective experience of isolation, loneliness, and vulnerability. This practice also makes it difficult to identify mothers who may be at-risk for PPD. Further, the stigma of mental health issues in many communities — including in the U.S. — often precludes mothers from seeking help. Many believe that gender discrimination and inequity need to first evolve in order for meaningful maternal mental health change to occur.

During this month, we recognize the mental health of post-partum women all over the world. Though the symptoms and the context of post-partum mood issues may appear differently across the globe, even amongst the various Every Mother Counts grantees, we recognize the connectedness of mothers and the struggles that they may face. We must find ways to support mothers everywhere , as we are more alike than we are different.

Learn more about Every Mother Counts and our work to help mothers survive and thrive in pregnancy, childbirth, and the post-partum period here.

Topics: Maternal Health, Mental Health