Irene Msimbo experienced depressive feelings after giving birth for the first time in 1995.
She did not really understand what was happening to her until she found out about postpartum depression, a condition that affects an estimated 30% of women who will have given birth in Zimbabwe.
Msimbo, who is the National Coordinator of The Helping Hand Trust (THHT), said that the condition has the potential to take away the joy that a newborn is supposed to bring to a mother, couple or family.
“Everything became so exaggerated, and I felt overwhelming sensations. It was just too much for me. The hormonal changes that a woman’s body goes through are enormous and can drive you insane.
Unlike a lot of other women, I had people to talk to, access to the necessary treatment, and I also took time to understand the matter,” said Msimbo.
Msimbo said despite the fact that post-natal depression is a debilitating condition exacerbated by high levels of poverty, there was low recognition of the problem within medical circles in the country.
The emergence of nuclear families has also resulted in poor family support structures for new mothers.
“Postnatal psychiatric illness, when left undiagnosed and untreated, can cause considerable family vulnerability. Adjusting to life as a mother can be difficult. In fact, for many women, having a baby is the most significant life-changing event that they will ever experience,” she said.
Msimbo said that she was so moved by her experience that she could not resist the desire to do something practical to help those who have to face the condition silently.
However, she faced resistance from people who derided her, accusing of her of trying to give prominence to what they termed a “white people’s condition”.
“I was not fazed by the criticism because from my experience, post-natal depression affects everyone, black and white, educated and non-educated. It cuts across all social boundaries. In fact, from my counselling sessions, I know a well-to-do couple whose marriage fell apart because they could not cope with the emotional upheavals that a new baby brought to their life,” she said.
She explained that emotional upheavals associated with the birth of a new baby ranged from mood swings to extreme cases of baby dumping or murder.
“Most cases of post-natal depression start within a month or six months of giving birth, miscarriage or abortion. Symptoms include mood swings, suicidal tendencies, thoughts of infanticide or actually committing the crime, baby dumping, tiredness, tearfulness, sleeplessness among others,” Msimbo said.
“Poverty, unwanted pregnancies, a history of depression in the family and even the gender of a child can all be causal factors of post-natal depression.”
Upon realising that there was no help for women suffering from the condition in Zimbabwe, Msimbo founded THHT whose objective is to provide counselling and support services to affected women and couples.
Msimbo said that post-natal depression also affects men but to a lesser extent.
“Male post-natal depression sometimes occurs as a reaction to their partner’s suffering from the condition, and another reason is that men find it difficult to cope with the birth of a child. As a result they feel overwhelmed, isolated, stigmatised, experience mood swings, low self-esteem and end up abusing alcohol or drugs. It has also led to the break-up of many marriages but affected couples are often unaware of what will be happening,” said Msimbo.
“The main reason why the condition is not diagnosed in men is that men often find it difficult to talk about their depression to such an extent that they don’t even realise they’re suffering from the condition,” she said.
“It’s been reduced to a women’s problem but it affects both sexes.”
According to Msimbo, health policies in the country do not recognise the public health burden of post-natal depression.
“Health policies in Zimbabwe do not recognise the considerable public health burden of depression in the marginalised sections of the community where women are discharged from maternity wards to their homes less than 24 hours after having delivered a baby. Strengthening of supervision and training for general maternity health staff and putting antidepressants onto the essential drugs lists need to be addressed at policy level,” Msimbo said.
Msimbo added that the purpose of her organisation was to create public awareness of post-natal depression among the public and medical professionals.
“We are optimistic about the expectant mother’s future despite the complexity of these psychological issues. Women with babies need special care, they need to rest, eat well, exercise, and seek therapy,” she said.
She said that all interventions and treatments that her organisation was carrying out were based on, and informed by, a solid understanding of the social and psychological dynamics that underly post-natal depression.