Poor hit hardest by maternal mental illness

Published May 5, 2016


Lisa Isaacs

ONE in five women suffers from depression or anxiety during and after pregnancy in South Africa.

As World Maternal Mental Health Day was marked yesterday, UCT’s Perinatal Mental Health Project (PMHP) says most of the women in South Africa who experience maternal mental illness are poor, from disadvantaged communities and face many challenges in accessing services and care.

On a global scale, one in seven mothers experiences a degree of depression and anxiety during their perinatal period. The perinatal period is the time from the beginning of pregnancy, including childbirth, and ends when the baby reaches its first birthday.

PMHP said worldwide, about 20% of women develop depression, anxiety and psychotic disorders during this period, and more than 75% of the cases go undiagnosed and untreated. PMHP director Simone Honikman said there was a misconception that mental distress exhibited by a mom may just merely be baby blues or, on the other end of the spectrum psychosis, but were symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“Baby blues is a temporary state where the mother feels overwhelmed and it relates to hormonal changes. It is fairly common and can last for a few days or a week. Depression is much more severe. Symptoms include feelings of hopelessness and a lack of enjoyment of the infant. People don’t get help because there is a stigma around this issue in communities and health institutions,” she said.

Honikman said untreated illnesses in turn had a detrimental effect on babies, including attachment problems, language delays and social and behavioural problems.

“People don’t realise these conditions are relatively easily treated. You don’t necessarily need a specialist of medication. A trained and experienced counsellor and other support systems can help,” she said.

Child Rights and Positive Parenting portfolio manager at Sonke Gender Justice, Wessel van den Berg, said it was essential that families were actively involved in the lives of the new mother and her baby as a support system.

“We still have a long way to go to get fathers more involved in supporting maternal and infant health. Fathers express that they do want to play a role in the lives of their partners and children, but sometimes don’t have the opportunity to do this,” he said.

“If new mothers have support in care for their infant they are less likely to show symptoms of anxiety and depression. Fathers can play a vital role in this.”

The family unit should also acknowledge the hard work involving raising a child.

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