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Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week

Dr Andy Mayers: Principal Academic, Bournemouth University; Patron, Dorset Mind; Trustee, DorPIP.  

People often ask me why I am so passionate about maternal mental health. Furthermore, how is that different to any other mental health challenge – regardless of being a mother. In this blog, I hope to answer those questions.  

What I do 

As Dorset Mind Patron, I am grateful to this great charity for allowing me to share my thoughts in this Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week (MMHAW). Among my roles in maternal mental health, I am a founding member of the Perinatal Mental Health Partnership (PMHP). We created MMHAW in 2017 and we have been running it ever since. Each year, around the first week of May, the aim of MMHAW is raise awareness about maternal mental health. We focus on some of the key challenges mums face and explore ways that we provide support and resources to help recovery – or simply give mums the toolkits to cope more effectively. Throughout the week there will be blogs, vlogs, Instagram Live sessions and other events across social media and traditional media.  

The Importance of Maternal Mental Health  

So, why is maternal mental health so important? And how is that any different to mental health challenges for anyone else? It might be easier to answer that second question first, as it emphasises the question about why it is so important. Take postnatal depression (PND). Surely, it is no different to typical depression for any other woman of a similar age and background, except that she is not a mother? But it is very different.  

One of the most common features of depression (for anyone) is guilt, but for mothers with PND this guilt goes through the roof. The societal image of motherhood is one of excitement and happiness. When a mother experiences PND, she will often feel that she has failed as a mother, feeling guilty that she is not a good enough mum. That guilt erodes her self-belief and self-worth.  

Key differences  

When any adult experiences depression, one option is to prescribe medication such as antidepressants. But is it as simple as that for a mother (or a pregnant woman)? How can we be sure that those medication will not harm the baby?  

As it happens, depending on the dose and other factors, many of the medications are safe – but it is always essential to seek the advice from a medically qualified person (and there are some medications that are not safe at all). That said, many mothers will stop taking medication because they have been told (by those who have no expertise), or rely on fake news on social media, that they should stop. Even if mothers are reassured by medical professionals that the medication that they are taking is OK, many stop because they worry about the impact it will have on their baby. Without medication their symptoms may get worse.  

Then there’s breastfeeding. This can be challenging for any new mum, let alone someone struggling with their mental health. Breastfeeding can become even more challenging for someone with PND, either because of the potential side effects of the medication or because of the impact of the illness itself.  

A mother who is already feeling guilty about the impact of her mood on her baby could feel even more guilty that she cannot feed her baby – and has failed yet another aspect of motherhood. All too often, those advising mothers simply tell mums that they shouldn’t worry as they could bottle feed instead (and this has included midwives and health visitors – although that training is so much better now). But, for the most part, that’s not what the mums want to hear – they want to be given help to resume breastfeeding, so that they feel more like a mum again.  

Another key difference for mothers experiencing PND (compared to non-mums) is the impact of that illness on the family, including the partner but most notably their baby. Bonding and attachment with baby are vital for the infant’s physical and mental development. Poor maternal mental health can interfere with a mother’s ability to fully attend and interact with her baby – another thing she can feel intensely guilty about. And yet, it is not mum’s fault; she is unwell. Reassuringly, there is a lot we can do to help mothers with that bonding, as well as find ways to improve her mental wellbeing. One of those ways is re-establishing breastfeeding.  

I could go on. From that, you might see why I feel that maternal mental health is so important. While there have many improvements in recent years (mostly due to campaigns such as MMHAW), we still need to do more to help mums recognise the difficulties they are facing and find ways to help them. 

The theme of Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 

This week is especially about mothers in the community. In recent years, there have been great improvements in extending and establishing NHS mother and baby units and perinatal community mental health teams (at least across England). While that’s to be celebrated, those services are set up for those mothers who are more seriously unwell. Many mothers struggle with poor mental health, but do not meet the criteria for those NHS services.

We need to do far more for those mums with low to moderate symptoms. Thats what we’re about at PMHP. Without resources, signposting and support, the symptoms for those mothers could escalate to the point where they do need more intense help. Early intervention is key. A central theme of MMHAW is raising awareness about that and influencing the change that is needed.  

So, what can we all do to help? We need to speak more openly about maternal mental health. That’s it’s OK to feel that way, it’s not the mum’s fault, and that there is hope. We need to give mums the confidence to talk about their mental health without fear of judgment (it is very common for mothers not to tell anyone – their partner, the family, and especially health professionals – as they fear their baby will be taken away from them because they are a bad mother). We need to campaign for more community support, perhaps through charities or similar, for those mothers who do speak up and seek help.  

It’s not just the mums 

Although this week (by definition) is about maternal mental health, it’s not just mums who face what we call poor ‘perinatal’ mental health. It can also affect fathers and other partners (including same sex partners). I work on campaigning for them too. You can read more about that on my website (see below). 

To wrap up 

I hope you now have a better understanding of why maternal mental health is so important, and so very different to mental health challenges for those who are not mothers.  

If you would like to discover more about what I do, head over to my website www.andrewmayers.uk. Or follow me on social media (Twitter @DrAndyMayers; Instagram @drandymayers) 

Our Guest Blogger: 

Huge thanks to our patron Dr Andy Mayers for his informative piece on Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week and the importance of Maternal, perinatal Mental Health. 

Further support:

If you are struggling to cope with your mental health in general, please talk to your GP. If you’re in a crisis, treat it as an emergency. Call 999 immediately or The Samaritans, FREE on 116 123. 

Dorset Mind offers group support that can also help with your wellbeing. The group offers peer support and helps to reduce stigma by normalizing conversations about mental health. You can also check out further support for stress and mental health here.  

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