World Health Day: Let’s Talk About Postpartum Depression

World Health Day: Let’s Talk About Postpartum Depression

{Photo Credit: Mark Tuschman}Photo Credit: Mark Tuschman

Pregnancy and childbirth are times of unparalleled change and hope for the future. But for many women, the arrival of a new baby is also a challenging time — one that can be overshadowed by depression.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 1 in 10 women suffer from postnatal depression, a devastating statistic that too often receives no attention. In African countries and contexts where women are exposed to poverty, persistent poor health, migration, conflict, gender-based violence, extreme stress, and unwanted pregnancy, the estimates are even higher, with up to 25 percent of women experiencing clinical depression after childbirth.  

The effects of depression on social and economic wellbeing and on families are enormous, as the risks and consequences go well beyond an individual woman. Depression in pregnancy is linked to preterm birth and low birth weight, which increases the risk of complications such as undernutrition and heart disease. Women who suffer from postpartum depression are often stigmatized and less likely to benefit from postnatal and preventive health care for themselves and their children. Partners and families may have difficulty understanding why a new mother who should be happy at the birth of a healthy baby is depressed.

But there is hope.

As the global health community comes together on this World Health Day to raise awareness about the impact of depression across societies, we must recognize the indispensable need for health systems equipped to respond to the needs of women in all stages of their lives.

A major barrier today is that medical and behavioral health care systems are often fragmented. Strong systems must emphasize a patient-centered approach where women’s health providers also give them psychosocial support. In facilities, midwives and nurses play an important role in the delivery of respectful and empathetic reproductive, maternal, and child health services. Models that integrate simple, reliable, and affordable tools for the identification and treatment of maternal mental health disorders can be adapted and scaled-up in many low-resource settings. At the community level, local women’s groups and community health workers can play a critical role in screening for postpartum depression, reducing stigma, and raising awareness about mental health issues during and after pregnancy.

While we’ve increasingly acknowledged the important role that mental health plays in achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals, this discussion remains largely absent from policies, programs, and initiatives focused on improving maternal and newborn health. 

It’s time we talk about women’s mental health as an integral part of their wellbeing.