Mothers: one way or another, we all have one. And the majority of women in the world will, one way or another, become one over the course of a lifetime. This Sunday is Mother’s Day in the US, and I count myself lucky to have a thriving 84-year old mother who has always been a champion for my siblings and me, and super lucky to be the mom of my four kids. But entering the world of motherhood is treacherous for some, with increased risk of depression. Here are five things we know about maternal depression and what we can do about it:
Maternal Depression, also called perinatal depression, refers to mood disorders that affect a woman during pregnancy and after her baby is born. Approximately10-15% of women experience prenatal depression and/or post-partum depression.
Having a child is supposed to be great, so why is it such a high-risk time? The “People’s Princess” was the most photographed woman of her time. She also struggled with an eating disorder for many years and was one of the first royals to use her position to bring attention to mental illness. In 1993, when no one else dared speak about mental illness, she addressed a London conference saying, “I have it on very good authority … that the nourishment of the body can turn into a painful attack on oneself.” Lesson: Princess Diana’s public recognition of the debilitating effects of mental illness, including eating disorders, validated the truth that even princesses have mental health problems and the only way forward is to break the silence.
When mom is depressed, kids are also at risk for depression. This is true even before the baby is born, and it continues to be true for infants, young children, and on up through adolescence. The risk may be transmitted by genetically, biologically, or by environmental exposure. Having untreated depression while pregnant can lead to abnormalities in brain development in the growing fetus that increases risk of mood and anxiety disorders in children. And moms who are depressed are less able to provide the best care for their children and kids are likely to be exposed to more stress and family discord. Daily life – things like getting to school, going to the doctor, playing with friends, and doing homework – become difficult, and over time increase risk for depression among children.
Treat mom’s depression and kids do better. Successful treatment of a depressed mom means reduced risk of depression for her kids. It doesn’t matter if the treatment is medication, psychotherapy or some combination; the important ingredient is the mother’s remission of symptoms. This has been demonstrated in high-income countries as well as in remote, low-income communities. In fact, when we were in South Africa, we visited the extraordinary University of Cape Town Perinatal Mental Health Clinic directed by Simone Honikman. Treatment works and it makes a difference for generations.
Kudos New York! Just last week, New York State approved a law that will require health insurers to cover depression screening for pregnant women and new mothers, promising to provide care for what is a common but also eminently treatable condition