The maternity journey is an intensely emotional experience for every new mother and mother-to-be. Feelings of anxiety, excitement, eagerness, and fear can swirl in a mother’s mind amid significant physical and hormonal changes. Most new moms experience a complex, almost incomprehensible set of emotions during and after the birth of their child. In honor of Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s discuss the impacts and ramifications that maternity can have on the mental health of moms in your organization — and how you can support them.

Related: 3 ways postpartum depression costs employers, and what they can do about it

Maternal mental health and Perinatal Mood Disorders

Feeling intense emotions is normal during and immediately after pregnancy. In fact, approximately “70 to 80% of mothers experience some form of negative emotions or mood swings after giving birth.” Afterall, motherhood is for many the culmination of so many things: childhood dreams, social expectations, and an innately human desire to care for one another. However, given that no pregnancy — and indeed no path to parenthood — is the same, there is no “standard” experience, nor standard emotional reaction.

For some mothers, the emotions become more than just feelings that pass with time: Perinatal Mood Disorders (PMD) can develop during pregnancy or up to a year postpartum. A 2005 study found that between 14 and 23% of women will experience a depressive episode during pregnancy. Similarly, the CDC estimates that one in eight women experience postpartum depression (PPD), characterized as a major depressive episode triggered by (and related to) giving birth. 

Risk factors include (but are not limited to) history of mental illness or substance abuse, family history of mental illness, financial and/or emotional stress, a lack of support from family or at work, unplanned pregnancies, and relationship problems. Consequently, mothers experiencing PPD have 90% higher healthcare costs than mothers who don’t. 

PMD, PPD, and related maternal mental health problems in general, are misunderstood and highly stigmatized. Despite the frequency (which may be higher than reported due to the stigma,) only half of women experiencing PPD receive mental health treatment. Some mothers report feeling guilty or ashamed for experiencing depression or anxiety when they’re supposed to be caring for a child, while others fear repercussions at home or at work if they seek help. Others lack the access, resources, or wherewithal to seek help. In 2017, untreated maternal mental health conditions accounted for $14.2 billion of economic cost, including related healthcare expenses and lost productivity or wages. The number is likely higher now due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The impact of policy, financial stress, and discrmination on maternal mental health

With reference to known risk factors for PMD and PPD, there are a variety of factors that can have significant impacts on maternal mental health. 

Paid leave policies

Inadequate paid leave time can significantly impact maternal mental health. Returning to work too soon can raise the risk for PPD, as well as increase the likelihood of women leaving their jobs, reducing their hours, or leaving the workforce altogether.

Without adequate leave time, mothers don’t have the ability to fully recover emotionally and physically from the rigors of pregnancy and childbirth. Similarly, for families that don’t adhere to traditional, heteronormative family structures, inequitable leave policies can impact them as well, simply because the benefits structure does not include their specific situations. 

Financial stress

Financial stress, in the form of not being able to pay bills or anxiety about healthcare costs, is a significant risk factor for PMD. A 2016 study of Mississippi mothers found financial stress to be the most commonly reported risk factor among women with self-reported PPD. Financial stress is amplified for women in high-risk categories, such as women of color, or women in lower income brackets. 

In the workplace, mothers that experience financial stress are more likely to experience depressive symptoms or PMD. Motherhood can be an expensive ordeal: without including healthcare costs, child care, clothing, food, and even activities quickly add up. 

Discrimination

Discrimination encompasses the variety of ways in which Black women and women of color experience prejudice during and after their maternal journey, which can affect their physical and mental health in a myriad of ways. According to a 2005 study of 655 recently postpartum mothers, Black and Hispanic women were twice as likely to experience PPD as white women. Among populations on Medicaid, “there were significant racial-ethnic differences in depression-related mental health care after delivery.”  

Discrimination can affect how organizations respond to requests from women of color regarding treatment — and likewise affect the likelihood they might explore treatment in the firstplace. Stories like that of Maria Alves, a single mother from Massachusetts, who was fired from her job after requesting additional leave time due to complications related to PPD, define the experience of many women of color seeking treatment. However, in many cases discrimination is not so clear cut. The impacts of systemic racism and unconscious bias on mothers can isolate them, potentially preventing them from requesting or receiving the care they need.

How can your organization support the mental health of working mothers?

Although some of the risk factors and causes of PMD and PPD are known, there are still many studies being conducted to learn more about what truly causes these disorders, and how they can be clinically treated or prevented. That being said, PMD can cost your organization thousands of dollars in healthcare and recruiting costs, as well as revenue for lost productivity. Replacing women who leave the workforce after their maternity leave can cost one and a half to two times their salary

So how can you help mothers in your organizations?

Provide comprehensive family-building benefits

Comprehensive benefits that provide continuous care throughout the maternal journey can significantly improve healthcare outcomes for mothers and their children. Ensure your benefits programs can meet the needs of mothers in your organization. Services like breast milk shipping, IVF/IUI reimbursements, and child care stipends can ease the financial strain on new moms, and help them transition back after maternity leave. Additionally, evaluate your parental leave offerings: ensure they’re sufficient, equitable, and inclusive for all families.

Ease the transition back to work

Transitioning back to work is an emotional time for many mothers, who are leaving their newborn for the first time. They still need to be conscious of feeding schedules, and likely want to monitor their baby’s wellbeing. Ease the transition by providing flexibility to mothers in the form of hybrid or flexible work schedules, reduced hours, or even job-sharing situations, so they can ramp up comfortably.

Educate and normalize mental health treatment

Stigmatization is one of the largest barriers to mothers receiving mental health treatment. Pregnancy discrimination generates fears of repercussions, reduced hours, or reduced status, and prompts many mothers to avoid seeking help. Encourage managers and people leaders to have conversations with mothers, or create employee resource groups (ERGs) so mothers can seek comfort and support with people who understand their situations. Additionally, provide resources about PPD and maternal mental health to help educate women in your workplace about what they’re feeling, and normalize the idea of seeking help when they need it.

Maven is the largest care platform for women's and family health, that gives mothers in your organization 24/7 access to virtual appointments with providers throughout their maternity journey. Our network of providers from over 25 different specialties can offer advice, support, and guidance on their mental health, parenting techniques, and even how to put their children to sleep. To find out how Maven can help your organization improve healthcare outcomes for families, request a demo today.

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