Pandemic Isolation More Than Doubles Maternal Mental Health Concerns

New moms struggling with overwhelm and isolation advised not to wait for six-week check-up to seek treatment.
Maternal mental health concerns are being heightened during the pandemic.
Maternal mental health concerns are being heightened during the pandemic.

When Amanda Munday returned home after the breech birth of her daughter, she was in shock, both physically and emotionally. It’s no wonder, really: Four hours after giving birth, she was discharged. The 36-year-old mother of two vividly recalls her first few weeks of motherhood: “I couldn’t sleep. I started to feel really high anxiety that the baby would die. Then I started to tell myself, ‘If the baby dies, I’ll kill myself,’” she told HuffPost Canada.

Though she wasn’t aware of it at the time, Munday was in the throes of postpartum depression. A pattern of sleeplessness, anxiety, lack of appetite and concern for her personal safety continued for nine days “until the intrusive thoughts became so loud I was committed involuntarily to a psychiatric ward in Toronto with postpartum depression (PPD),” she said. Munday stayed in the psych ward for 18 days. “Most of my stay revolved around me begging to be released, while also saying I wasn’t sure I could be a mother,” she said. “The feeling of failure was fierce.”

“What they’re going through now is in no way a reflection of their worth or their capability as mother.”

According to a Statistics Canada survey for 2018-2019, almost one quarter of new mothers reported feelings that were consistent with either postpartum depression or an anxiety disorder. The reality of becoming a mother has significant mental health implications, and not enough is being done to raise awareness around the risk factors and to screen early for symptoms in Canada. Many mothers feel that the system is failing them.

Adjusting to life after a birth

Katie Hurst, a registered nurse working in family practice in Toronto, has studied in the field of women’s mental health, specifically within the area of postpartum social support. She described diverse risk factors to the onset of the illness, including social isolation and feeling overwhelmed.

Taking on a new identity as a mother, or adjusting to being a mother to a newborn again, [as well as] adjusting to the changes in their social relationships” often contribute to the onset of PPD, she told HuffPost Canada. Hurst also noted that new mothers are often shocked at the changes in their personal relationships with their intimate partners following birth. Feeling like they don’t have anyone to talk to can add to their anxiety.

“I was overcome with overwhelming emotions,” said Maria Lianos-Carbone of her experience of becoming a mother for the first time. The Toronto mother recalls wondering how a new mother could have such feelings of sadness. “When I held my baby…I felt intense love and pride, but it was mixed with frustration and concern,” she said. Lianos-Carbone revealed that the feelings continued, long after she returned home with her baby:

“After several weeks had passed, I realized that the blues weren’t quite disappearing. I felt huge pressure to instantly become this self-sufficient, amazing mom who could breastfeed on demand, entertain people who wanted to come over and see the baby and get my pre-pregnancy body back.”

Standard six-week check-ups often come too late for those who are experiencing postpartum depression or anxiety. From her experience working with new mothers, Hurst noted that for single mothers or mothers without a good social support system, there is the significant risk that nobody will be able to help them recognize the symptoms of PPD/PPA, should they begin to manifest.

“There are many struggles including caring for a newborn and the mother’s own physical recovery from birth, whether it be vaginal delivery or C-section, and both come with their own physical challenges,” she said. “They are often the priority, and mental health/emotional challenges are sometimes overlooked as a result.”

Postpartum depression and anxiety during the pandemic

The pandemic is only making matters worse for new mothers, when it comes to mental health. A 2020 survey conducted between April and May of 520 pregnant women and 380 women who had given birth within the past 12 months, (primarily Canadian), reported a jump of self-reported depression rates from 15 percent to 40.7 percent, prior to and during the pandemic. Anxiety rates also soared in this population, from a pre-pandemic 29 percent to 72 percent.

With COVID-19 demanding that people stay home and physically distanced as much as possible, it is particularly important that those women who may be experiencing PPD/PPA seek diagnosis and have treatment options and resources available to them.

Hurst cautioned, nonetheless, against going online for community support before first consulting a professional for diagnostic and treatment purposes. “Online groups can act as a good social support option for after [seeing a healthcare professional], especially in the early weeks when getting out of the house may be more difficult,” she added.

New mothers should connect with a Canada-wide repository that can direct them to supports in their respective communities. “Nationally, we have support systems like the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). They have community locations that can offer connections to local resources,” Hurst said.

The most important thing for new mothers, is to remember that what they’re going through now is in no way a reflection of their worth or their capability as mother. It is temporary, treatable and not at all uncommon ― they do not have to weather postpartum depression or anxiety alone.

WATCH: EARLY INTERVENTION HELPS MOMS STRUGGLING WITH POSTPARTUM MENTAL HEALTH.