Maternal Mental Health is the Heart of the Family

There’s an old saying “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” In many ways, that is true. But it isn’t just about being happy. A mother’s mental health is critical to the well-being and functioning of the family, yet 1 in 7 new mothers suffer from a perinatal mood disorder such as depression or anxiety. When feelings such as sadness, poor self-esteem, worthlessness, hopelessness, or feeling like one is going to jump out of her skin creep in, the chances for good self-care and well-being of the family decline.

Many are familiar with the baby blues, a physiologically normal condition that affects approximately 80% of new mothers, that may put mothers on an emotional roller coaster for up to two weeks following delivery. Mothers may be happy one minute and then sad for no apparent reason. As one of my colleagues tells the mothers she works with, they may cry about nothing…and everything. The baby blues are not a perinatal mood disorder. While they don’t feel normal in any sense of the word, the fact is that the baby blues are normal. They are also self-limiting. If the roller coaster of feelings persists beyond 14 days postpartum, the likelihood that the mother has a perinatal mood disorder increases.

Depression and anxiety may also be influenced by normal physiologic changes, but they are far from normal. The good news is that, with help, mothers can expect to feel better in time. Help may come in the form of attending a support group, working with a therapist or taking medication. Emotional and physical support from family and friends are also critical to recovery from a perinatal mood disorder. Understanding that depression and anxiety are medical conditions that require treatment is the key that unlocks the mystery of these mental health conditions.

Mothers are not the only family members affected by perinatal mood disorders. It is no surprise that untreated depression affects relationships within the family, but it may be a surprise that it can affect the long-term cognitive development of the infant. The video Still Face Experiment that can be found on You Tube is an example of how babies are strongly affected by their mothers’ moods. When the mothers are engaged with their babies, there are smiles and laughter. However, when depression is simulated by the mothers in the form of cold and unfeeling facial expressions, the babies attempt, in the short term, to induce a positive reaction and then ultimately become apathetic and disengaged. Babies need psychologically healthy mothers to grow and develop cognitively and emotionally.

Help is available. For more information, contact the Perinatal Mood Disorders staff at 732-937-5437, extension 179.