Mental illness among new and expectant mothers has worsened during the pandemic, and a first-of-its kind national fundraiser aims to stop the stigma and offer more support.
The national walkathon is scheduled this week in memory of a Toronto mother who died by suicide earlier this year after dealing with undiagnosed, and rare, postpartum psychosis. It’s been named Flora’s Walk for 44-year-old single mother Flora Babakhani, who took her own life two months after giving birth to her daughter following years of fertility treatments.
Winnipeg and cities across Canada are holding walkathon fundraisers Wednesday, May 4, to call for the development of a national perinatal mental health strategy, geared toward parents before and after giving birth.
Regular screening — not just a six-week post-birth medical appointment — should be part of that strategy along with additional social support for mothers, said Jennifer Hanslip, a postpartum doula who has been working in the area for the past six years.
"The pandemic has not helped things," she said. Many of the programs that mothers relied on were shut down or only held virtually, removing some crucial connection.
"We’ve made some progress, but I think the pandemic has hampered some of that. I’m looking forward though, as we come out of this and as more groups are opening up (again) and we’re talking about this more, that we will start having more options available," Hanslip said.
Hanslip is one of the organizers of Winnipeg’s walk, which takes place rain or shine at Assiniboine Park on Wednesday morning. They’ve already surpassed their goal of $1,000 raised. Half of the proceeds are going to Winnipeg’s Women’s Health Clinic. More than $50,000 has been raised across Canada.
Increasing rates of mental illness among women during pregnancy and up to a year after birth (a broader issue than postpartum depression alone) have continued to rise during the pandemic. One in three Canadians are experiencing perinatal mental illness now, compared to one in five pre-pandemic, according to estimates from the Canadian Perinatal Mental Health Collaborative, which co-ordinated the national event.
Postpartum psychosis is much more rare, affecting approximately one or two women out of 1,000.
Locally, Hanslip said some of her clients still feel stigmatized about asking for help, or avoid asking because as mothers, they’re expected to handle everything.
"A lot of people have gotten this message from family, from media, internally, that they should be able to do it all. Trying to recover from having a baby is hard enough on its own," she said.
"If somebody is going through this and they don’t get help, it doesn’t just affect them," Hanslip added. "It affects their children and their whole family."
As awareness of perinatal mental illness grows, it’s becoming clear the condition is not entirely hormone-related and can even affect parents who didn’t give birth.
"While a lot of the talk about this is geared toward mothers or birthing persons, it actually can affect the dads, the partners, even people who are adopting children," Hanslip said.
Many local organizations run peer support programs and offer other mental-health resources specifically for mothers, and there’s still lots of work to do, Hanslip said.
"It’s not just OK to talk about it, but it’s important to talk about it, because how can you get help if you’re suffering in silence?"
For more information on Flora’s Walk, visit https://floras-walk-for-perinatal-mental-health.raisely.com.
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.