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What Every Woman Should Know About Maternal Mental Health

Mental health struggles can impact both moms and their children. Here's how yoga—and other resources—can help.

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May is Maternal Mental Health awareness month, and as a mother to a 3-year-old, I am acutely aware of the stress and pressure on parents and mothers in particular. I have experienced first-hand how important it is to prioritize my own mental health. That has not been easy in a global pandemic and as a woman of color in America amidst the continual onslaught of racial injustices. Fortunately, help exists for all women, and yoga, mindfulness, and meditation are particularly powerful tools.

What is Maternal Mental Health?

Maternal mental health disorders—including depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and postpartum psychosis—are classified as those that happen during the perinatal period. This includes the prenatal period, or time that a woman is pregnant, and the postpartum period, the first year after the baby is born. But anxiety and mood disorders can persist for much longer.

Around 15 to 20 percent of women experience mood disorders during the perinatal period, making them the most common complication related to childbirth. And worryingly, those numbers may be rising. “Over the past year, maternal mental conditions have been exacerbated by the challenges of the pandemic, with some reports showing the rates have more than doubled since 2019,” says Salpi Salibian MS, PA-C, CHLT and Director of Clinical Operations for the Hoag Hospital Maternal Mental Health Program.

What makes new and expectant mothers particularly vulnerable? Hormonal changes, lack of sleep, and the responsibilities of caring for a newborn all contribute, says Salibian. And the burden on Black women and mothers in America is even greater, due to systemic racism and its mental health impact.

How Mothers Can Protect Their Mental Health

Salibian says expectant and new moms—as well as family and friends—should be aware of the prevalence of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and to when to seek help. There’s no shame in needing assistance and destigmatizing and normalizing women seeking support is a vital part of maternal mental health and wellbeing.

If you plan to become pregnant and have a personal history of anxiety and depression, it’s a great idea to schedule a preconception or pregnancy consultation with a mental health expert to discuss concerns. Many health care centers, such as the Hoag Maternal Mental Health Clinic (MMH), have specific resources like outpatient therapy and psychiatric care, to meet the needs of expectant and new moms.

If you’re pregnant or have recently given birth, your health care provider may (and should) ask questions about your mental wellbeing just as they do about your physical health. Screening for maternal mental health disorders is usually done with a simple questionnaire. If the questionnaire reveals that you are living with a maternal mental health disorder, there’s plenty of things that you and your care team can do to reduce symptoms:

  • Read about childbirth and parenthood to help you to set realistic expectations.
  • Building a support network who can help you with little tasks around the house or to babysit while you take a nap
  • Develop good self- care habits including getting enough sleep and eating well
  • Practice meditation and mindfulness. Meditation and mindfulness can help you to manage stress and be less-reactionary to the stimuli you may experience as a new parent.

See also: A Mindful Parenting Practice to Help You Be Present—and Enjoy the Daily Moments of Motherhood

Unique Challenges Facing Black Mothers

Black women in America—and particularly Black mothers—face rampant discrimination, which has an incredibly negative impact on the health and well-being of their entire family, says Dr Sara Yafah King, PhD and Neuroscientist at the Oregon Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Neurological Disorders at Oregon Health & Science University.  Black mothers are far more likely to suffer from chronic stress, anxiety, and depression due to microaggressions and systemic racism, notes Dr King. They are also less likely to get treatment for maternal mental health disorders. This can affect the healthy development of their child. This chronic stress can contribute to childhood trauma which can lead to the development of mental and physical health challenges, as well as have an adverse effect on their educational trajectory.

As a Black mother navigating COVID-19, Dr King has personally experienced the ways in which the stress of surviving the pandemic—on top of home-schooling, trying to work from home, and experiencing the incredible grief and sadness of continued police brutality and gun violence directed towards the Black, Brown, and AAPI communities—has contributed to physical and mental pain and eroded her family’s mental health. For Black and BIWOC mothers in facing similar struggles, she offers these suggestions for embodying resilience in the short and long-term:

  • Look for and connect with other Black mothers online who are prioritizing their mental and physical health. Try Mater Mea, an online community for Black moms.
  • Develop a yoga practice to support your resilience. Celebrate the fact that it is no longer hard to find Black women yoga teachers to practice with! The Black Yoga Teachers Alliance and Instagram are two places to easily connect with women who share your lived experience, and so can reflect your #blackgirlmagic and strength back to you, says Dr King.
  • Consider the joining the burgeoning Black gardening movement. Interacting with plants is an amazing way to decompress and reconnect with the environment in a way that settles your nervous system. Check out @blackwithplants and @blacksuburbanhomestead for inspiration.
  • Making a connection with a Black therapist can be life-changing in terms of how they can mirror you back to yourself and support the integration and healing of trauma in the body. If you live in California, Dr King recommends @yourfavoritetherapist as a resource and an excellent example of a practice that caters to Black and Brown clientele.

See also: Redefining Your Practice after Motherhood