Maternal health insights by Dr. Jodi Pawluski

On the occasion of World Mental Health Day, we interviewed one of our BINC funded researcher Dr. Jodi Pawluski, on maternal health issues- the critical period corresponding to pregnancy, childbirth and postnatal in a mother’s life.

Let’s discover – with our expert neuroscientist, therapist and mother of two- how Mental maternal health is a major issue worldwide.

Why is maternal health so important & what health problems do women face currently?

For the majority of new parents that transition to parenthood is a wonderful experience highlighted by feelings of joy and fulfilment. However, a significant number of pregnant and postpartum women (and men too) struggle with mental illnesses. These mental illnesses have enduring effects on maternal health, mother-infant interactions, and later child development. In addition, the financial burden to society of maternal mental illness is remarkable – for example in the United Kingdom the known cost of peripartum mental health problems per year’s births is £8.1 billion.

How does research contribute to enhance maternal health issues?

The most common maternal mental illnesses involve anxiety and depression, with studies around the world indicating that at least ~8-12% of pregnant and early-postpartum women suffer from an anxiety disorder and at least 10% face depression. These rates are staggering and what’s even more troubling is the fact that we have very few treatment options specifically available for maternal mental illnesses. With the ever-changing maternal physiology throughout pregnancy and the postpartum period increased research on maternal mental health is needed to better target and treat maternal mental illnesses.

How does it affect children’s lives on a short-term and mid-term basis?

Of course, the mother is not alone in her transition to becoming a parent and we must consider the mother-infant dyad, especially when maternal mental illness occurs. For decades we have known that early life factors, such as postpartum depression, can affect the developing child. In fact, far more research has been done on how maternal mental health affects the developing child, than on how maternal mental health affects the mother. Hopefully moving forward in research and policies we will see the value in understanding maternal mental illnesses and the mechanisms behind these illnesses to develop strategies to treat and ultimately prevent poor health outcomes for mother and child. This is why BINC is so important – as it focuses on advancing science in maternal and infant health.

In the current pandemic situation, how can we enhance maternal health conditions?

The pandemic has drastically changed the lives of mothers in particular, as they are often the primary care-givers. We see the mental illnesses are on the rise, not only in mothers, but in the general population. The constant stress of the pandemic in our lives is difficult to control but one thing that can be helpful is to focus on what we can control in our homes and our lives. Also focusing on what is important now (and not tomorrow or next week) can also help to feel less overwhelmed. I heard a saying once that goes like this: Focus on the step in front of you, not the whole staircase. As moms, sometimes that is all we can or need to do.

As a researcher, would you have some advice, health recommendations for mothers?

In terms of health recommendations for mothers who are pregnant or postpartum – eating well and getting a bit of exercise are always beneficial. These things can change our brains! Spending time with friends can also be incredibly healthy – even if it has to be virtual. And if you need time alone, ask for it. Your partner or a close friend or family member can take the kids for a while.

If you find you are struggling with anger, anxiety or depression, reach out for help. There is always someone who can support you. Postpartum Support International is a great place to start.

Keep in mind that mental health is physical health. One exists in the context of the other.

*For more information related to maternal health: www.jodipawluski.com .