Update: Using #BellLetsTalkMaternalMentalHealth, advocates were able to obtain 13 million impressions on Twitter during the Bell Let’s Talk campaign Jan. 31, 2018.
While I love Bell Let’s Talk‘s decision to focus on everyday Canadians this year instead of the celebrities we’re used to hearing from, I wish just one of the stories would have highlighted a mom or mom-to-be struggling with a maternal mental health disorder.
It gets kind of close in a Bell Let’s Talk prime time special featuring the stories of eight Canadians interviewed by CTV veteran journalist and The Social co-host, Marci Ien.
I love the fact that Ien and a crew of four spent six weeks traveling the country from Iqaluit to Halifax listening to Canadians tell of how they’re coping with various forms of mental illness including Lesley Kelly, a mom in Regina who suffered from the baby blues for a couple of days after the birth of her son. However, the mention is brief, and doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of maternal mental health struggles currently facing moms and families in Canada.
“There are illnesses that we’re talking about and delving into with this special that we’ve not done before,” said Ien in a sit down interview with me. “Canadians are sharing their stories like never before and the onus was upon us to say we hear you, we’re listening Canada, we got you and we’re coming to see you.”
Hopefully next year, that will also include moms with postpartum depression.
One in five Canadians will be affected by a mental illness this year, and that includes pregnant and postpartum women who may develop a range of maternal mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and psychosis.
According to new guidelines released by the Government of Canada, depression affects about 10 per cent of women during pregnancy, and 20 to 40 per cent of women with a history of depression will suffer a relapse postpartum. Despite this, Canada does not recommend perinatal depression screening, while Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States all do.
“Maternal mental health is the ugly stepsister of the mental health movement,” says Claire Kerr-Zlobin, founder of Life With A Baby, a national non-profit organization created to help moms with postpartum depression combat isolation. “It seems since Ottawa is not providing funding towards this area, no one wants to touch it.”
After reaching out numerous times to attempt to get Bell Let’s Talk to include maternal mental health as part of their campaign over the past eight years, this year, Kerr-Zlobin has decided to run her own Twitter campaign on January 31st using the hashtag #BellLetsTalkMaternalMentalHealth.
“The fact that a large campaign about mental health has completely ignored maternal mental health is quite telling,” says Kerr-Zlobin. “To me, it further stigmatizes postpartum mood and anxiety disorders and delivers the message that mothers getting depressed after a baby is not a valid mental health disorder.”
Doula and maternal mental health advocate Sara Beckel agrees.
“For the past two years, I’ve been trying to get their attention and connect about getting postpartum depression on the national radar,” says Beckel, owner of the Family First Doula Centre in Saskatchewan. “I read through all of the featured stories for this year’s campaign and, I’m not surprised, but zero postpartum depression stories are listed.”
Beckel is one of the lead organizers of this year’s Our Mothers, Our Future conference in May featuring Margaret Trudeau which Beckel and other advocates hope will begin a national conversation about maternal mental health. In a letter to Bell last year, Beckel shared her story and wrote about the effect perinatal mood and anxiety disorders can have on early childhood development.
“I found myself in a very dark place and completely overwhelmed in my new role as a mother of two,” writes Beckel. “Women who do not receive treatment can undergo a lifelong battle with depression and anxiety, impacting her emotional and physical health, and ability to function.”
Beckel says Bell’s oversight mirrors the current national attitude towards maternal mental health.
“The rest of the country is also failing to address this issue head on,” says Beckel. “We’re still sweeping it under the rug or we’re simply not putting mothers anywhere close to the top of priority list.”
To be fair, I was invited to talk about my experience with postpartum depression during a live segment on CTV National on Bell Let’s Talk day in 2013. Unfortunately, it was during my first bout with a maternal mental health illness right in the middle of a manic episode after not having been properly screened or treated for what turned out to be postpartum bipolar disorder.
Back then, I was experiencing a psychotic episode but it was missed completely. I guess the fact that I wasn’t at risk of harming myself or my child didn’t raise any red flags with anyone including my doctor. But I thought angels were talking to me, and that meditation was the cure for postpartum depression. I quit a high-paying job on a whim, wrote and self-published a book within a month and put together a one-woman musical which I performed on stage at a theatre I rented out in Toronto.
Friends and family, though they thought I was acting strangely, came and supported me. I raised money for mental health, but I was not well. Soon afterwards, I crashed into a debilitating depression and lost my house because I had no job and was spending excessively (a symptom of bipolar disorder.)
I wish I could go back now, five years wiser, a much more informed maternal mental health advocate after having experienced severe postpartum depression twice, getting the proper treatment the second time around which included life-saving medication, and becoming fully educated about maternal mental health disorders.
I would talk about the need for a national maternal mental health strategy.
I would talk about how important it is to screen all women for maternal mental health disorders from preconception to one year postpartum and even beyond.
I would talk about the symptoms not often spoken about including intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, heart palpitations, muscle tightness, brain fog, derealization, depersonalization and in some cases like mine, delusional thinking, hallucinations, and psychosis.
I would talk about the need for more and better training for health care providers from nurses to obstetricians, to family doctors, to midwives.
I would talk about the need for resources in every community in Canada to help women with a perinatal mood disorder in addition to medication such as therapy, support groups and a dedicated maternal mental health hospital wing with beds for mothers and their babies.
I would talk about the need for home care for mothers experiencing a severe mental illness to help with caring for the baby and household chores, not just a nurse that comes and sits on your couch for an hour to confirm you have postpartum depression and then never see them again.
I would talk about how the current mental health movement is working backwards, and how failing to identify and adequately treat moms and moms-to-be with a maternal mental illness can have behavioural and psychological effects on their babies who grow up to be children with mental health issues who grow up to be adults with mental health issues.
Apart from my five minute misinformed interview in 2013, there has been barely a blip about maternal mental health in any meaningful way during the past eight years of Bell Let’s Talk. I don’t believe Bell purposefully excludes maternal mental health from their campaign, I just think it’s not on their radar. Unfortunately, this year’s campaign highlighting the stories of everyday Canadians was a missed golden opportunity.
“It’s like we don’t matter,” says Beckel. “It’s extremely important that Bell Let’s Talk puts maternal mental health on the campaign in a big way because healthy mothers create the foundation for healthy children. We need to move away from dealing with the illness as young teens and adults and start investing in early intervention and prevention in order to make true and long-lasting change.”