Maternal mental health matters

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Pregnancy, the birth of a baby, and the first year of life are exciting and life changing experiences for a woman and her family. For some women, this can be a time of mixed emotions, including feelings of anxiety and sadness, particularly if they are having pregnancy complications, have a history of previous mental health disorder or other stressful factors in their lives.

Globally, maternal mental health problems are considered as a major public health challenge. Worldwide, about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder, primarily depression. Maternal mental disorders are treatable. But this perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMADs) frequently go unnoticed and untreated, often with tragic and long-term consequences to both mother and child.

Perinatal Mental Health refers to the emotional and psychological wellbeing of mothers during the period of conception to 12 months after a baby is born.

There are effective and well-researched treatment options available to help women recover, though there is less awareness about the condition.

World Maternal Mental Health Day was recognized this year on May 1 (first Wednesday of the month) under the theme ‘Making over motherhood’. However awareness activities are held from April 29 to May 3. The health awareness  draws attention to essential health concerns for mothers and families and the reality that life changes around pregnancy make women more vulnerable to mental illness.

In Qatar, Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) and Primary Health Care Corporation (PHCC) are committed to providing support and consultation to all women with maternal mental health concerns. Patients and their families are encouraged to seek help from their healthcare provider who will assist with comprehensive assessment, consultation, treatment and follow-up services.

Who is at risk of these disorders?

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All women can develop mental disorders during pregnancy and in the first year after delivery, but poverty, migration, extreme stress, exposure to violence (domestic and gender-based), emergency and conflict situations, natural disasters, and low social support generally increase risks for specific disorders.

Effects of maternal mental disorders after birth on the mother and the infant: After the birth, the mother with depression suffers a lot and may fail to adequately eat, bathe or care for herself in other ways. This may increase the risks of ill health. The risk of suicide is also a consideration, and in psychotic illnesses, the risk of infanticide, though rare, must be taken into consideration.
Very young infants can be affected by and are highly sensitive to the environment and the quality of care, and are likely to be affected by mothers with mental disorders as well. Prolonged or severe mental illness hampers the mother-infant attachment, breastfeeding and infant care.

What to do?: Maternal mental health can be integrated into general health care including women’s health, maternal and child health care, reproductive health care and other relevant services.

The healthcare providers have joined the global community to raise awareness about perinatal mental health issues.

“Around 80 percent of women experience episodes of tearfulness and emotional instability in the days or weeks after they have given birth. These symptoms, which are thought to be caused by the sudden hormonal and chemical changes that take place in the body after childbirth, generally only last a couple of days,” said Dr Dalia Albahari, Specialist, Psychiatry, at HMC Mental Health Service.

“However, for a range of reasons, some women can develop a more serious level of depression, known as postnatal depression. If left untreated, postnatal depression may impact mother-baby bonding and can be dangerous for both the woman and her child,” she added.

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Dr Albahari said it is important to draw attention to this topic because depression is a treatable condition and when women seek help early, treatment can be very successful. She said that high levels of stigma and a lack of awareness about mental illness can make it difficult for women to access mental healthcare, and said it is necessary to raise awareness about postnatal depression and the importance of seeking help.

But she also said that it is important to raise awareness about the difference between baby blues and more extreme mood disorders. She said baby blues are characterized by mood swings and feelings of sadness.

It can be common for women to experience a low mood and to feel mildly depressed in the first week after childbirth, but she says the baby blues should not be confused with depression, according to Dr Albahari.

For the second year, recognizing the importance of maternal mental health in building a healthy society, Sidra Medicine is joining hands, is partnering with HMC to highlight the services available in Qatar for women experiencing perinatal mental health disorders.

“Our focus this year is to raise awareness about the resources that are available at Sidra Medicine and other centers for women and families in the country. We want women to know that help is at hand and that we continue to actively build networks with our partners from HMC and Primary Health Care Corporation (PHCC) and the private sector, so that women in Qatar will get the right treatment at the right time,” said Dr Zainab Imam, Psychiatrist, Sidra Medicine.