Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

A wake-up call on maternal mental illness

Edited by Jill Wright,

I can only hope an Australian publication picks up the series of two New York Times articles on maternal mental illness in their entirety [so far I've seen only a small, but still shocking excerpt in Essential Baby], because nothing I've seen elsewhere quite conveys the vulnerability of young mothers and their babies and the widespread ignorance of their plight. 

And it would be nice if it served as a wake-up call to Australian politicians, because they seem to be deaf to entreaties.

The articles, by health and science writer Pam Belluck, reveal the latest research findings that are causing scientists to revise their understanding of these disorders. They often develop earlier - and, as I've written previously, later - than generally accepted, and they include symptoms not just of postpartum depression but also of psychiatric illnesses.  

The article relates how many women have been afraid to admit to "terrifying visions or deadened emotions, believing they should be flush with maternal joy or fearing their babies would be taken from them" and the struggles, too often tragically unsuccessful, they endure.

The transcript of the SBS Insight report on the topic, Coping with Baby, shows the same picture in Australia. It includes an interview with Dean Litis, whose wife, Louise Litis, took her own life after the birth of her second child, despite having professional help, including the resources of PANDA, which is doing great work. [It holds an annual lunch and fund-raiser in memory of Louise.]

In a post on his blog, North Queensland-based mental health nurse Paul McNamara suggests that we simply aren't doing enough to help, describing the National Perinatal Depression Initiative as "a myth".

He reports that in Queensland, the positions of perinatal mental health clinical nurse consultants haven't been filled, and that PANDA's National Perinatal Depression Helpline has had to cut its hours to 10am to 5pm. The Million Mums in May campaign has been working hard to turn that into a 24/7 service. 

I hope that when people read the articles above, they will be prepared to go to the Million Mums in May site, and click through to email their State and Federal MPs and the Federal Health Minister to back essential funding. 

This is part of what you'll be telling them: "One in 7 new mums is diagnosed with postnatal depression each year in Australia and the number is rising with Australia’s birth rate. 

"This year around 48,000 new mums will be diagnosed, and the number is predicted to grow to nearly 50,000 in 2015. This means the lives of 50,000 babies will be devastated by postnatal depression, and nearly the same number of fathers and families. 

"Without more funds, only 7% of these will get the support they need this year from PANDA. This means 93 out of 100 struggling mums will miss out, with devastating impacts on them, their families and the wider economy."

Given that the Prime Minister is so keen on giving mothers a generous parental leave scheme, I have to wonder why we are still having to ask for this sort of help.

About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.