As the government gears up to launch its promised mental health inquiry to stem climbing numbers of suicides, a Maungaturoto health activist is urging more attention be paid to depressed mothers.
Spokesperson for Maternal Care Action Group Kristina Paterson says women suffering untreated depression and anxiety during pregnancy and in the first three years of their child’s life are more likely to raise a child who will suffer mental and behavioural problems later in life, and who is more likely to become suicidal.
Although still taking care of their baby’s physical needs, depressed mothers can struggle to respond to their child’s emotional needs, for example, by having unhappy facial expressions or exhibiting anxiety when their child is distressed.
“Those formative years are incredibly important and usually set a child up for the rest of their life,” Kristina says.
She says early intervention through the successful treatment of maternal depression is far easier than dealing with more complex mental problems later when their children grow up.
Despite this, successive governments have neglected maternal mental health, leading to a dramatic increase in mental health problems overall and putting enormous strain on mental health services.
“We can prevent being in such a crisis and having such a high demand on services if we can address things earlier,” Kristina says.
Specifically, Maternal Care Action will be pressing the government for more training for midwives around the issue of perinatal depression and training to enhance midwives’ ability to screen mothers for such depression.
They will seek more spending on early intervention services for depressed mothers and more spending on counselling services for mothers who may be suffering depression,but whose symptoms do not currently meet the criteria for state support.
Kristina says one in eight mothers in New Zealand experience antenatal depression and one in five postnatal depression – about 11,000 mums each year.
“Even though suicide is the leading cause of maternal deaths in New Zealand, we have a low rate of screening for depression,” Kristina says.
Health Minister David Clark has begun discussions regarding setting up its mental health inquiry, which is on the government’s agenda for its first 100 days in office. During the election, Labour vowed to resolve New Zealand’s “mental health crisis,” a policy that survived coalition talks.
Kristina hopes Maternal Care Action will form part of an inquiry advisory panel particularly in relation to suicide prevention.