Why We Need To Talk About Maternal Mental Health

Guest Post By: Natalie Serianni

The Month of May is an important one for mental health.

Each year since 1949, the US has observed Mental Health Awareness month to support, reduce stigma, educate, and advocate for policies that support greater public mental health. 

Inside of Mental Health Month, May 3rd is designated as Maternal Mental Health Day, a day that raises awareness around maternal mental health issues, to assist and accommodate women who become mothers. 

Many of us who are mothers, whether we’re newly postpartum, or years beyond becoming a mother, recognize that women need extra care and support during the transition to motherhood. While each woman’s experience in the postpartum period will differ, some women will experience physical and mental health struggles. 

In honor of maternal mental health day, it’s important to draw attention to these crucial issues for women. Globally, it gives us an opportunity to highlight the importance of mental healthcare for mothers. 

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Sarah Harmon, founder of The School of Mom, has been supporting mothers for over a decade. Through education, community, and resources, her programs empower women to “Mother Oneself Mindfully,” through healthy conversations and deep connection. The program is designed to create more meaningful relationships with others, while learning to heal the relationship with self to one that is more present, accepting, and loving. 

Her work has shaped how we view maternal mental health, drawing particular attention to certain systemic truths: that the US does not always do a great job of supporting moms before baby and postpartum. “The focus is always on the baby, which is important,” says Harmon, “but those main prenatal touchpoints are essential times to check in and know what to check for, concerning mental health.” 

Many women will go an entire pregnancy without having someone check in on how they’re handling their pregnancy, preparing for birth, work, family matters, and other mental health matters that may be thrown off balance. “More often than not, the first mental health check a mother gets is at the pediatrician’s office – with her newborn.” It can’t just be a small mention during a routine checkup, Harmon says. “Mental health checks should be included in dialogues and parent education while mom is pregnant.” 

Indeed, it seems like the conversation around maternal mental health, particularly discussions about birth, postpartum and recovery, is becoming more open and transparent. We can acknowledge that labor and delivery are significant areas for doctors, OB/GYNs and midwives to focus on, but it’s also crucial to address and support other struggles a mom might face, like post-partum depression and anxiety, especially during those intense first weeks, months, and years. 

“We can be open and honest about these issues and struggles,” says Harmon. “Women want to know.” As she says, we need to educate moms and worry less about scaring them. “Sometimes, it can be overwhelming, but it’s better than sugar coating and withholding information, because we think it will protect them.” That’s where being clear with new moms and moms-to-be is key for conversations and checkins about mental health. As Harmon states, “we need to be talking about maternal mental health before women even start trying for a child.”

As a new mom, change happens all at once, and it can be incredibly overwhelming. Often, new mothers may feel a wide range of emotions after birth while also tending to a newborn baby. 

There are so many ands to motherhood in this moment: it can be beautiful and hard, you are exhausted and happy, thrilled and sad. In the midst of all of this, it’s essential to feel supported. In New England, The Parent Wellness Group is an incredible resource, a team of therapists specifically trained in perinatal care, who are also parents themselves. Their collective of seasoned clinicians supports parents in navigating challenges and addressing the struggles that come with raising a family. 

So, how can we help and sustain maternal mental health? For one, partners can help. A lot. They can tend to other kids, take on more household responsibilities, and plan meals so mom and the family are fed. Partners can also check in regularly with new mothers to see how they’re feeling and coping with their new reality.

As well, it can be helpful for women to connect with their healthcare provider to find out more information about what to look for prior to birth and any potential risk factors. This can help mothers-to-be feel prepared for the unpredictable postpartum time. Finding and reconnecting with trusted folks ahead of time, like a caring, professional therapist, can empower new mothers.

Having these big conversations and plans in place might feel additional, but it’s worth it to learn how to navigate the system beforehand, so it’s one less thing to think about with a new baby. Harmon says that having teams of people to support and listen to women, resources that “encourage community and connection at every turn,” during pregnancy and postpartum, can be a lifeline for new mothers. 

Maternal Mental Health day is a great opportunity to check in with new mom friends, family, and to consider your own experience as a new mom. And while it’s a wonderful sentiment, it seems like one day just isn’t enough. Harmon knows the importance of Maternal Mental Health day, but wishes for more. “I’m so grateful for awareness and education – creating this shared language for moms. But I wish it was more than one day in one month.” 

Here’s to many more open, transparent conversations about the ways we become mothers – and even more powerful practices and policies to support maternal mental health. 

Further reading:

Guest Post by Natalie Serianni

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