Mum-of-two Chaneen Saliee discusses what maternal mental health means to her, plus shares her advice and tips for mums who feel they may be struggling.
Maternal mental health is about being aware that mothers and mothers-to-be, with an influx of new and unusual hormones and hundreds of other new things to consider, are more likely to experience fluctuations in their mental well-being.
It's quite normal, but not everyone knows this or feels confident enough to share their struggles in order to get help. I hope that with this article if you or someone you know is experiencing vast fluctuations in their mental well-being, you will find solace in knowing you are not alone.
Maternal mental health, also commonly referred to as perinatal mental health, can include conditions ranging from low mood to psychosis.
“It has been estimated that, across the UK, up to 1 in 5 women develop some form of mental health problem during their pregnancy or in the year after birth.” This is only an estimation based on research conducted, there are still many mums who aren’t even aware that maternal mental illness is a thing of concern.
When I was a new mum to my first daughter, I remember having the most terrifying thoughts about doing something or something happening to her. I struggled to feel that I was okay - I genuinely thought I was an evil person who was possessed. And then one autumn morning, while I sat breastfeeding my daughter all of my focus was drawn to the TV. ITV’s This Morning was on and someone was talking about their experience with ‘intrusive thoughts’.
Intrusive thoughts are unwelcome, recurring thoughts that can be vivid and traumatic. They are also sometimes referred to as ‘scary thoughts’. They are mildly linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“That’s it!” I shouted at my partner. He looked at me weirdly. “That’s me,” I said to him, frantically pointing at the TV. “I have that!” It was a relief that I knew how to get help, I knew I could talk about it.
I went on to have Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which gave me the tools I needed to overcome my experience with intrusive thoughts.
I was able to understand them, why they happened, what they meant and how to let them go should they ever rear their ugly heads again.
Maternal Mental Health is just as important as Maternal Physical Health
However, since that has not always been the case, many mothers have gone through truly harrowing mental health issues and yet never had the permission to talk about their experience. They have felt so alone in their experiences that could have led them to support networks.
Whilst it is important for society and more particularly the healthcare industry to understand, it is exceptionally important for you as an individual, to acknowledge and take care of your own mental health.
Below you will find some online support groups that can become your welcoming support network.
@Pandas_uk - Perinatal Mental Health Support and Awareness
@mmhalliance - Maternal Mental Health Alliance
@themotherhoodgroup - Motherhood community and coordinators of Black Maternal Mental Health Week
No one can advocate for you like you can advocate for yourself. Three simple words to your GP, “I need help” can make a world of difference. Don’t get me wrong, while those three words are simple they can feel really hard to say.
I recently Googled ‘why do people need to be registered at birth,’ and what came up was this, birth certificates are crucial to a child’s legal proof of identity. ‘Without it, children are invisible to their governments, meaning they could miss out on their rights being protected and upheld, as well as essential services like health care and education.’
Similarly, if you are aware of your mental state, if you are struggling and need help, but do not make it a priority to get help, you are like the child that’s invisible. No one else will know, like you know, how you are feeling.
I was silent before seeing someone else talk about Intrusive Thoughts on the TV. I didn’t know I could say anything. Now I know, I want to shout this message far and wide so more and more mums know they are not alone.
When you do realise you need help, speak up. It may feel really hard, but there are people that will understand you and will be able to ensure you get the right help.
Maternal mental health is something that differs from person to person, it can even differ from pregnancy to pregnancy. When I was pregnant with my first my mental health ran rampant with intrusive thoughts and feelings of being trapped. With my second, my mental health was fine and my physical health had had enough.
Raising awareness of maternal mental health issues
Not long ago talking about mental illness was taboo. It was unacceptable to show any ‘weakness’, it was not okay to ‘feel’ like things were too much, and it was certainly not okay to mention things like anxiety, hallucinations and psychosis.
Maternal mental health issues impact the whole family and not just the mother. And there's much more to maternal mental health than postnatal depression.
“These illnesses can be caused by a combination of biological, psychological and social stressors, such as lack of support, a family history, or a previous experience with these disorders.”
These stressors are more than doubled in black women due to a culmination of effects also known as weathering.
Weathering is "the repeated exposure to socioeconomic adversity, political marginalization, racism, and perpetual discrimination which can harm health".
"In response to stress, the human body releases substances that, when in excessive amounts, can harm health. These substances include hormones and neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol" explains Dr. Arline Geronimus, who was a researcher in the Department of Public Health Policy and Administration at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
She further explains that "repeated releases of these substances in high amounts over time may lead to secondary physiological effects" for black women.
Tips to look after your mental health
The age-old advice, ‘try not to stress while you're pregnant or breastfeeding’ would go a long way if it was as simple as that. When you’re in the thick of it, it can feel incredibly hard to ‘not stress’. As promised, here are some of my tried and tested tips for helping to prevent or overcome a really difficult period with your mental health.
Talk to someone - please! This is perhaps the most cliche one, but it is the most important. There are studies which show that talking about how you feel can help to relieve the pressure a little. So, find someone you can trust or who will be able to relate and talk about how you are feeling. As a side note, I have women who open up in my DMs on Instagram and most of the time they say "Thank you so much. I never expected a reply from you at all. It just felt so good to write out how I was feeling. I feel better already." Need to talk to someone? Here’s how to get help when you need it.
Tidy your space - make the space around you feel as nice as you can. It always helps me so much to declutter. There is a whole community on Instagram who use cleaning as therapy - their stories were picked up by the BBC because it was so inspirational. Harriet Knock, who inspired me initially to take pride in my home, shares cleaning tips on her Instagram account @makingahouseahome. In an interview with the BBC she explained that cleaning has helped her to cope with severe anxiety while she brings up two (now three) young children.
Write it down - journal, write lists, write never-to-be-sent letters. Writing is a free way to guide yourself through how you are feeling and bring you back to a grounded state. As a coach, a lot of my work focuses largely on talking and writing. Some of the most powerful coaching tools come in the form of journal prompts and never-to-be-sent letters. The important thing to remember is that there is no wrong way to do it. There is no right way to do it either. You simply put pen to paper and see what comes out. You start writing about your day and end up with a page full of things that you are most grateful for or things that you are afraid of. It is not necessarily easy - and neither is struggling with mental health issues - so writing may help. My favourite thing to write down are the to-do lists - because they remind me of all that I have achieved that day and it feels good to look at life from the perspective of ‘how far you've come’ instead of ‘how much more you need to do’.
Meditation - hold space for yourself. I wasn’t going to include this one because lots of people scoff at it and say it's not for them. There was a time it wasn't for me and then I realised I was doing it wrong. I was ‘trying’ to do what I thought I should do rather than just sitting down, restfully for a bit. I also thought it’d be easy. It’s not meant to be easy but it is so powerfully helpful. How do you meditate? You sit down, you close your eyes (or not) and you aim to just allow whatever comes up to come up. It’s not about clearing your mind - it is about letting your mind know that for the moment it can do, feel or say whatever you want and you will remain still and okay with everything. Meditation is helpful because when you realise that you do not have to act on or respond to every thought and you will still be okay, you will find yourself feeling a lot less stressed, anxious or upset when different triggers arise in your day-to-day life.
Talk to your GP - if you feel you have tried everything you can, it may be worth talking to your GP about other forms of support such as medication. There is nothing wrong with taking medication to support your mental health. It has been a taboo for far too long but more and more people are speaking up about using medication to support their mental health in order to normalise it.
You are an incredible, adaptive human being who is so loved. I really hope this article helps. Save it. Share it. Feel free to reach out to me on Instagram too: @chaneensaliee.