What About Mental Health?

When we think about reducing infant and maternal mortality, it’s easy to overlook a key factor: mental health. Improving mental health treatment isn’t part of the

photo by David Rochkind

Millennium Development Goals. However, some argue it should be, for the simple reason that mental health is linked with the outcomes and achievement of the MDGs. For maternal health, creating programs that improve mental health in women would be able to reduce maternal mortality and improve child health.

Using mental health treatment to reduce maternal and infant mortality may seem like a roundabout solution, but studies show that these are closely intertwined. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that one in three to one in five women in the developing world have a significant mental health problem during pregnancy or after childbirth.  Rates of depression alone can impact 10 to 30% of mothers, leading to lower rates of self-care and increasing the danger of suicide. The symptoms of depression are often dismissed as normal effects of motherhood, such as fatigue and sleeplessness. As a result, maternal depression goes untreated, having profound impacts on the health of both the mother and the child. A woman with depression is less likely to adhere to a healthy lifestyle, and may fail to properly see to their health needs and the needs of their child. The WHO notes that mental health problems in mothers are linked directly to lower birth weights in infants, higher rates of malnutrition, stunting, and diarrheal diseases. In pregnant women, the lower rates of self-care are associated with higher rates of stillbirths, as a woman may fail to seek proper prenatal care or may engage in risky behaviors such as substance use.

Despite these negative impacts of mental illness, mental health interventions in the developing world are given a lower priority. Due to limited resources, organizations and countries may prefer to focus on more visible and physical causes of maternal and infant mortality. However, improving mental health may be as simple as providing community health workers with mental health training. Community health workers may be best able to identify signs of depression or other mental illnesses in women, and would be able to intervene when necessary. Other possible interventions employ group-based interventions. In Chile and Uganda, studies have found that peer support groups combined with medication are able to help women cope with symptoms of depression. In Bangladesh and parts of India, using participatory interventions has led to an improvement in maternal health and a 45% reduction in infant mortality.

Failing to address mental health may limit the effectiveness of other physical interventions, as there can be “no health without mental health.” By focusing more on maternal mental health, we would be able to improve the lives of both mothers and children, reducing mortality and increasing their chances for a happier and healthier life.

Pallavi Trikutam is a Program and Research Intern with the SISGI Group focused on maternal, infant, and child health issues as well as water security. To learn more about the SISGI Group visit www.sisgigroup.org.
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