One in every four women suffer from mental health issues during or after childbirth but most cases are going undiagnosed and untreated, leaving parents to struggle alone, according to a consultant psychiatrist.

The new non-governmental organisation Parent-Infant Mental Health Alliance, to be officially launched soon, will seek to offer support to mothers, fathers and the infant during this sensitive period, Ethel Felice said.

“Parenthood is often depicted as a happy moment in the media and by society in general. In reality, however, this can be a stressful time for the mother and father.  How could you be suffering from depression during this happy time? But, just as much as mothers can suffer from physical complications of pregnancy, such as heightened blood pressure and diabetes, they can also suffer from mental health issues and are considered as the most common complications, especially in mothers who have a history of mental health issues,” said Dr Felice, the president of the NGO’s board.

Deborah Atanasio experienced this firsthand.

“It’s not easy to admit that the worst part of my life was the first year of becoming a mother,” she writes in an honest article in which she shares her story as a mental health survivor. 

Ms Atanasio, who had been diagnosed with postpartum psychosis – a rare psychiatric condition – encourages people to reach out for help. As a service user representative, she calls on women to realise they are not alone and that there is nothing to be ashamed of when experiencing mental health problems at this time in their lives.

The support I received from family, friends and colleagues made a real difference in my recovery

“I am still on medication and I do not know whether this journey has a definite ending. What I certainly know is that the support I received from family, friends and colleagues made a real difference in my recovery.”

Dr Felice, who specialises in perinatal mental health, said that in Malta 8.7 per cent of women who had healthy babies suffered from postpartum depression and between 11 and 15 per cent of women suffered from depression during pregnancy. One in every four women suffer from mental health issues during the perinatal period which is the time from conception to one year after birth.

Most suffer from anxiety and mild to moderate depression. These disorders, in the majority of cases, are short-lived but sometimes symptoms persist requiring treatment. On the other hand, cases of postpartum psychosis, considered to be on the severe end of the spectrum, are rare with two in every 1,000 cases.

A diagnosis for depression, she said, is made when a patient suffers from a range of symptoms for over two weeks. These include low mood, loss of interest and enjoyment, reduced energy, loss of concentration, low self-esteem, feeling of helplessness, feelings of guilt, and negative thoughts that include believing she is not good enough. In extreme cases, this can lead to death wishes and suicidal thoughts.

Most of the depressive episodes have also anxiety symptoms. In the case of anxiety, symptoms include feeling fearful and worried all the time. “It becomes a problem that needs to be treated when it impairs the mother’s ability to care for herself and her infant,” she said.

Support for both parents and child

The Parent-Infant Mental Health Alliance will seek to offer support to mothers experiencing mental health problems and their families, educate the public, combat stigma and give a voice to service users, among other things.

While, in the majority of cases, it is the woman who suffers from mental health problems, this could also impact fathers and the infant.

International research shows that a mother’s mental health state may influence the relationship with the baby. A 2014 UK study on the cost of perinatal mental health problems on the economic and social impact of maternal mental health problems showed that nearly three-quarters (72%) of the cost on the healthcare system related to adverse impacts on the child rather than the mother.

“Ensuring good mental health before, during and after pregnancy ensures that the parent-infant bond is strong and supports a healthy physical, emotional and social development of the infant,” she said.

Visit the Parent-Infant Mental Health Alliance Facebook page. Those who would like to share their experiences with others confidentially can visit the closed Facebook group You Are Not Alone – Perinatal Mental Health Support Malta.

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