In Zimbabwe, as in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, new mothers are at risk of falling into severe depressive states — known as postpartum depression — that can potentially damage their mental health as well as the well-being of the newborn child.
In many parts of the continent, public health systems are ill-equipped to deal with postpartum depression, which affects a significant number of women after giving birth.
The situation is made worse by the absence of psychiatrists or clinical psychologists trained to help women cope with what is largely an unknown condition.
According to researchers, postpartum depression (also called post-natal depression) affects as many as one in five women, particularly during the first year of motherhood. Less than two in 1 000 women are also at risk of developing postpartum psychosis.
The condition causes mothers to feel exhausted and emotionally empty and can potentially destroy the bonding between a mother and her newborn baby.
“Women seem to be particularly vulnerable to depression during their reproductive years: rates of the disorder are highest in females between the ages of 25 and 45. New data indicate that the incidence of depression in females rises, albeit modestly, after giving birth,” says the Scientific America journal.
According to the journal, dramatic hormonal fluctuations that occur after delivery may contribute to postpartum depression in susceptible women, but causes of the disorder are not fully understood.
“A longer term consequence of not diagnosing and treating postpartum depression is the effects it can have on the family, including the parental relationship and the development of the child. Children of depressed women have been found to have attachment problems, higher rates of behavioural problems and lower vocabulary skills,” states a report titled Postpartum Depression: A Literature Review.
For new mothers, the situation can be so severe it can lead to cases of infanticide and suicide.
However, among African women, few if any studies have been conducted to better understand the condition, and the way that women cope in the absence of appropriate public health services.
It is possible to surmise from existing data from other parts of the world the general experience of African women following childbirth.
A study by the University of Iowa revealed that low-income women are much more likely to suffer from postpartum depression than wealthier women.
The research revealed that women who are poor already have a lot of stress, ranging from poor living conditions to concerns about paying the bills.
The birth of an infant can represent additional financial and emotional stress, and depression negatively impacts the woman’s ability to cope with these already difficult circumstances, according to the study.
The study which focused on a sample of 4 332 new mothers from four Iowa counties showed that compared to white or Latino mothers, African-American mothers are more likely to experience depression after having a baby.
Furthermore, the study revealed that African-American women tend to have weaker support networks, a major predictor of postpartum depression.
Like African-American women, African women that give birth are also affected by low incomes and live in stressful contexts which increase the likelihood of the onset of depression.
While there is clearly a need for more research into the coping methods of African women, simple screening methods can be utilised to identify women that are at risk of postnatal depression.
Nurses in public health settings need to be provided with training so that they are able to detect and assist new mothers from postpartum depression.
The use of simple tools such as questionnaires with specific questions related to the condition can be used to detect the depressive symptoms among new mothers.
In addition, public educational and awareness raising programmes or simple pamphlets and posters describing the condition need to be displayed in antenatal clinics so that women are mentally prepared to deal with the problem.
As research shows, social support networks can also play a key role in helping women deal with postnatal depression.
Overall, it is essential for the government to guarantee that new moms have access to clinical and maternal services that can help to avert the emotional upheavals associated with giving birth.