In May of every year, the world celebrates maternal mental health awareness and 16-22 May 2016 was World Mental Health Awareness week. There was a lot of conversation on social media around mental health which was awesome because mental health is an issue that is usually talked about in hush hush tones and whispers. Nobody really wants to admit to having a mental health issue so it was really great to see people talk so openly about it. Let’s face it: at one point or another in our lives, we have all been faced with at least one mental health problem or another; whether depression, anxiety, mood swings or eating disorders.
In the words of Glenn Close, award winning American actress, “what mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation about illnesses that affects not only individuals but their families as well“.
However, in all of the conversations, I scarcely came upon any that talked about mental health in pregnancy and pregnancy related mental health issues. Does this mean that pregnant women do not have mental health issues? Absolutely not! In fact, they are more at risk of developing mental health problems or having an exacerbation of an already existing mental health problem.
Pregnancy, though a cause for joy, is usually a challenging period for most women due to the fact that there are a lot of changes and adjustments that go on both inside and outside the body during this period.
Some common mental health issues associated with pregnancy include:
Anxiety- a lot of pregnant women suffer from anxiety during pregnancy, especially if it is their first. They may become anxious of how the pregnancy will affect their bodies (every woman is bound to gain weight during pregnancy and only very few regain their former weight and body shape after child birth), about whether they are capable of carrying the pregnancy to term and the baby’s health or generally about things that could go wrong in the pregnancy. For those who have had past experiences of a difficult pregnancy or child birth, they may become anxious of the experiences being repeated.
Depression- depression, like anxiety is very common in women during pregnancy. In developed countries, where women are screened for depression during pregnancy, about 15-20% of pregnant women turn out to be depressed. In developing countries such as Nigeria, there is no data to this effect and statistics may be higher. Pregnant women may become depressed for a lot of reasons, some of which include; an unplanned pregnancy, stress during pregnancy, relationship or marital stress, having unrealistic expectations concerning the baby, lack of social or familial support, previous traumatic experiences in pregnancy, having a sick or unsettled baby and a family history of pregnancy related or genetic illnesses.
Eating disorders- generally, women tend to have larger and exotic appetites during pregnancy. In some women who already have eating disorder problems, this may become exacerbated during pregnancy and can have serious health effects on both mother and child.
Post-natal depression- this is when a woman develops depression sometime during the first few weeks after child birth. If left untreated, it can go on for about a year and may affect the level of care a mother gives to her baby. Guess what- men also suffer from post-natal depression!
Post-Partum psychosis- this is a very serious mental health problem that poses serious risk for both mother and child. Some sufferers may go on to commit suicide or murder their babies. It does not usually resolve itself fully without treatment.
Other mental health issues that may be associated with pregnancy and child birth include; bipolar or multiple personality disorders, schizophrenia, substance use and addiction.
Now that we have talked about the problems, what are the solutions or treatment options?
First and foremost, having a mental health problem is nothing to be ashamed of because a whole lot of other people also have the same problems and there is always help for those who seek it. Keeping quiet about your mental health problems only makes you sink deeper into them.
According to Hauwa Abbas, COO Silver Lining for the Needy Initiative, “It is vital to continue stressing the importance antenatal and postnatal care plays in preventing harm to mother and child. For this reason, we must increase efforts in training and ensure health care providers incorporate basic mental health topics into physical care education for expectant and nursing mothers in Nigeria.”
So, here are a few tips for overcoming, dealing with or treating mental health problems in pregnancy
- Be open about your problems; know that you are not alone.
- Have a solid support base during this period; spouses, family, close friends that you can always talk to about how you feel and who will always be ready to help you.
- Talk to your doctor during your ante-natal visits about any emotional changes you may be experiencing. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist who deals with such cases.
- Know your history: a lot of mental problems are genetic and usually may not be resolved so easily. Knowing if you or any member of your family have any history of mental health issues will help you prepare thus reducing the risk of further complications. If you are also on any drugs that treat mental illness such as antidepressants, you should talk to your doctor; you may need to be taken off the drugs before you get pregnant because some of these drugs may have a negative effect on the baby but ensure you talk to your doctor before you stop medication.
- Eat healthy, balanced meals
- Find time regularly to do something you enjoy, this helps you relax and lifts your mood.
- Get regular sleep.
Finally, to the spouses of all pregnant women out there: understand that she is not being cranky or difficult, she just may be dealing with pregnancy related mental health problems and SHE NEEDS YOU AT THIS TIME!