Mothers in Developing Countries Are More Vulnerable to Depression

Perinatal and Post-Partum Depression (PPD) in developing nations have only recently entered mainstream dialogue on mothers’ mental health. Mostly because efforts have classically focused on preventing maternal and infant deaths. [1]

Though mothers experience some measure of the “baby blues” brought on by sleep deprivation and the demands of new motherhood, in severe cases, post-partum depression can stop mothers from functioning properly and even pose a risk of suicide.

Perinatal mental health statistics in developing countries:

Worldwide, about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder, primarily depression. According to recent findings, this number is even higher in developing countries: 15.6% during pregnancy and nearly 20% after child birth.  [2]

Why are women in developing countries more at risk for perinatal depression?

Women in developing countries face higher social, cultural and economic barriers. It is a combination of such factors and not always a single cause that put women at risk for perinatal depression.

Life in a developing country comes with the challenges of poverty (or proximity to it), migration, day-to-day stress, emergency and conflict situations, and the occasional natural disaster. In particular, low social support increases the risk for specific disorders, and PPD is no exception. Often, these issues persist across classes.

The baby’s continued ill health or spending extended time in an intensive care unit can also be a reason for post-partum depression.

Social and Cultural Factors in Developing Countries That Contribute to Post-Partum Depression:

  • Talk of depression or mental illness is taboo
  • There is an air of disappointment if a male child was expected and a female baby was born
  • A child is an added responsibility (particularly for women who already care for a multi-generational joint family)
  • Upon the baby’s birth, all focus shifts from the mother to the new-born. This sudden withdrawal of attention is hard on first-time mothers, who are typically pampered during pregnancy and then suddenly expected to forget their own well-being and attend to the baby’s needs.

Cultural factors affecting perinatal depression are backed by data. Studies have shown that the risk is higher among women whose postpartum care was provided by their mothers-in-law or who received no help from their mothers-in-law at all, or among those who feared or argued with their in-laws or had insufficient social support. [1]

What are the symptoms of post-partum depression?

  • The mother is unable to concentrate or focus on the well-being of the child
  • She feels unworthy and is unable to make decisions
  • She seems constantly tired and listless, restless, or has severe mood swings
  • She is unable to go through the day-to-day motions of eating, bathing or otherwise caring for herself
  • She seems to derive no joy from the baby’s presence or participate in celebratory activities
  • She eats more (resulting in sharp weight gain) or less (weight drops below healthy level) [3]

What can be done for Post-Partum Depression?

Apart from appropriate and timely medical attention, women should be given access to a better education, paid work, sexual and reproductive health services (including family planning), and supportive, non-judgmental family relationships.

If you’re the mother with PPD:

  • Recognize that you may have PPD, and bring it to the attention of your doctor, friends or family members close to you. Be persistent with seeking help despite your own inhibitions or whatever judgment you may be subjected to.
  • Organize some for yourself and engage in a constructive activity while someone else cares for the baby.
  • Exercise to counteract negative feelings.
  • Seek gainful employment to improve your economic conditions, be more independent, and build decision-making power.
  • Know your reproductive rights, and that help is available outside your home. Become empowered through knowledge.

If you’re the husband:

  • Recognize that this is a real condition and a very trying time for the mother of your child. Offer unconditional support. Often, you may be the only one in the family who does. Shield her from judgment in her fragile state.
  • Share her burden by caring for the baby, or arranging care.

While some women overcome their poor mental health over time, many have chronic mental health problems. Every effort must be made on an individual and global level to address the mental well-being of new mothers.

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1. Fisher, J et al. Prevalence and determinants of common perinatal mental disorders in women in low- and lower-middle-income countries: a systematic review, 2012.

2. WHO: Maternal Mental Health

3. Symptoms of Post-Partum Depression: WebMD

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