Beyond the baby blues: Confronting pregnancy-related mental health challenges

Posted: April 26, 2024 | Word Count: 822

By Dr. Lisa Saul, UnitedHealthcare’s National Medical Director, Maternal & Child Health

Pregnancy and childbirth are often celebrated as incredible, remarkable events in a woman's life. But for some, it can be anything but joyful. One in five women experience pregnancy-related mental health conditions. Of those, 20% will face suicidal thoughts or attempt to harm themselves. In fact, maternal mental health challenges are the number one cause of maternal mortality, primarily due to suicide.

Mental health conditions are among the most common complications of pregnancy and can present themselves in many ways. In addition to sleep disruption, some women feel unable or unwilling to care for their baby, while others have negative thoughts about their baby. In some cases, women may experience hallucinations, psychosis, or severe depression.

Most women have some degree of the "baby blues." So, what makes some women more likely to experience more severe mental health issues? Women with a history of anxiety or mood disorders or those with a family history of postpartum depression have a higher risk. Women from under-resourced communities, those with little to no social support, and those who use substances like drugs or alcohol also face higher risks, as are women who have experienced fertility challenges, an unwanted pregnancy, or a difficult birth. And among communities of color, stigma and judgment often prevent women (and men) from seeking mental health treatment.

But it doesn't have to be that way. As a medical professional specializing in women's health and a mother of two, I believe it is crucial to shed light on this silent epidemic. The time has come to recognize that pregnancy-related mental health conditions are not only prevalent but largely preventable. With a concerted effort to raise awareness and prioritize maternal mental health, we can take significant steps to save lives and ensure a safer journey into motherhood. Here are a few tips to help combat maternal mental health challenges:

Inform yourself: Take some time to familiarize yourself with emotional changes that can come with pregnancy and the postpartum period. Learning about common experiences and knowing when things may be veering into more serious territory can be immensely helpful. This knowledge not only helps in setting your own expectations but also empowers you to communicate effectively with healthcare providers.

Destigmatize mental health: It’s okay to talk about how we’re really feeling, even when it’s tough. Whether you’re pregnant, a new parent, or a supportive partner or friend, speaking up about mental health challenges should be as normal as talking about a backache. When we open up, we make it easier for everyone to seek the help they might need without fear.

Monitor your well-being: Keep an eye on how you’re feeling emotionally, not just physically. Changes in mood, energy levels or thoughts can be subtle clues that you need some extra care. It’s like keeping a diary of your emotional world — noting down what feels different, what’s worrying you, or even what’s bringing you unexpected joy.

Call your health plan provider: Your health insurer can also help you access care. For example, some insurers like UnitedHealthcare have specially trained advocates to support members who might be struggling due to their social environment. They’re there to help members understand their benefits and guide them to timely care.

Take advantage of your Employee Assistance Program (EAP): These programs typically offer services that relatively few employees take advantage of. For example, if your employer offers EAP in-the-moment support through UnitedHealthcare, you can call in to speak confidentially with a master’s level behavioral health clinician to receive support as many times as needed, in real-time, and around the clock — even if it’s 2 a.m. on a Saturday.* Depending on your situation, you may not need to seek additional behavioral health support with a care provider if your EAP offers personalized guidance.

Seek support: Don’t hesitate to ask your personal or professional networks for help. A trusted healthcare provider can guide you to the right level of support, such as talking to an expert in person or virtually, or joining a network or discussion group about this issue. Your family and friends can be there for you by listening, offering the voice of experience, or even helping with household chores to allow you time to rest. Remember that taking action early is a proactive step toward maintaining your mental health. It’s a sign of strength.

As we journey toward safer motherhood experiences, it is essential to recognize the significance of pregnancy-related mental health conditions and take action to address this pressing issue. Together, we can break the silence, prioritize maternal mental health, and ensure that no mother faces this challenge alone. It is time to unite, embrace compassion, and empower all women to embark on their motherhood journey with strength and resilience.

* EAP availability varies by plan design and benefits selected by the employer

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