Skip to main content

Comment: silent burden no more: a global call to action to prioritize perinatal mental health

Abstract

Common perinatal mental disorders are the most frequent complications of pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period, and the prevalence among women in low- and middle-income countries is the highest at nearly 20%. Women are the cornerstone of a healthy and prosperous society and until their mental health is taken as seriously as their physical wellbeing, we will not improve maternal mortality, morbidity and the ability of women to thrive. On the heels of several international efforts to put perinatal mental health on the global agenda, we propose seven urgent actions that the international community, governments, health systems, academia, civil society, and individuals should take to ensure that women everywhere have access to high-quality, respectful care for both their physical and mental wellbeing. Addressing perinatal mental health promotion, prevention, early intervention and treatment of common perinatal mental disorders must be a global priority.

Peer Review reports

Main text

Addressing perinatal mental health (PMH) promotion, prevention, early intervention and treatment of common perinatal mental disorders must be a global priority if we truly want to achieve Sustainable Development Goals 3 (health and well-being) and 5 (gender equality) and improve maternal, newborn, and child health outcomes. Common perinatal mental disorders (CPMDs), consisting of anxiety, depression and somatic disorders, are the most frequent complication of pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period [1, 2].Footnote 1 In low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), prevalence of CPMDs is nearly 20%, and higher among the most marginalized women with the least access to health and social care [1, 3]. Inadequate detection of CPMDs and lack of available services and/or effective referral systems frequently result in women remaining undiagnosed and untreated, suffering in silence while negatively impacting their own quality of life and the physical and emotional health of their children and families.

The traditional biomedical binary construct that a person is either mentally well or ill does not reflect the needs women have along the mental health continuum. CPMDs are complex in origin and expression and social determinants of health such as poverty, harmful gender norms, and intimate partner violence contribute to CPMDs globally, and especially in LMICs [4, 5]. Improving women’s mental health thus requires an intersectoral response that includes government, health sector, social development systems, communities, and families. PMH is therefore not just a ‘woman’s’ problem, but an issue that impacts our very wellbeing as a society.

Women are the cornerstones of a healthy and prosperous society. We must commit now to valuing their physical and mental wellbeing, especially during pregnancy and postpartum, and their under-recognized role as primary caregivers for the next generation. The COVID-19 pandemic, which led to increased depression and anxiety in perinatal women, exposed and exacerbated many risk factors that impact women’s health and brought the issue of mental health, and specifically PMH, to the forefront [6,7,8].

Our urgent call comes on the heels of several global efforts. The 2014 Lancet Commission on Perinatal Mental Health called for the inclusion of PMH in all mental health programs, and the 2018 Lancet Commission on Global Mental Health and Sustainable Development warned that the abysmally slow response to addressing mental health would lead to missing Sustainable Development Goal 3.4 targets explicitly promoting mental health and wellbeing [5, 9]. Global guidelines have elevated these priorities, particularly in LMICs where women are disproportionately impacted [10,11,12]. In September 2021, a global Maternal Mental Health Technical Consultation convened by the United States Agency for International Development, in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund and the World Health Organization, with 700 participants from 72 countries, called for urgent action [13]. The message was clear—the challenge is complex but not intractable. Solutions must be evidence-based, involve women to create community-driven solutions, while changing national policy and global standards - and they must include CPMD prevention and mental health promotion. The global community needs to act with urgency, otherwise women, children and families will suffer the consequences: intergenerational poverty, women’s morbidity and mortality, and children not meeting growth and development indicators. To promote perinatal mental wellbeing as a human right, we propose the following actions:

  1. 1.

    The global community must prioritize women’s PMH needs by establishing global standards, guidelines, and strategies to fully integrate PMH into existing programs; and establish and create indicators and monitoring mechanisms to continually assess global progress towards achieving a PMH target [5, 9,10,11,12, 14].

  2. 2.

    Governments should be accountable to women’s PMH needs, state their commitment to PMH explicitly in their national policies, and link policies to budgetary allocations that are adequately financed and integrated across other health and development sectors to promote intersectoral collaboration [15]. And governments must also recognize that effective health policies must be aimed at improving the social status of women to have the impact women need and deserve [3].

  3. 3.

    Health systems need to integrate evidence-based PMH approaches into sexual, reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health services; nutrition services; and universal health coverage [16]. The capacity of existing providers should be strengthened through competency-based training, supportive supervision, and adequate remuneration. A critical mass of providers or provider time should be made available, commensurate with the CPMD burden of the local context. Provider skills should include mental health promotion, prevention, and detection; respectful, culturally appropriate person-centered psychological care; and case management.

  4. 4.

    There should be a global commitment to strengthening implementation including implementation research and building on the emerging evidence for practice in LMIC settings with significant learning from the humanitarian sector. There is promising data from several trials that task-sharing approaches and digital interventions are effective for delivery of psychological interventions and treatment by lay health workers [17, 18]. For sustainability, real world implementation strategies need to be developed and assessed where these approaches are adapted for context and fully integrated into health systems at scale, with adequate fidelity. Particular attention should be given to women living in conflict and crisis affected situations, with adaptations made to meet the increasing scale of the need in these contexts.

  5. 5.

    At the community level, evidence-based task sharing models and collaboration with existing platforms and community structures should be employed [19, 20]. Integrated care pathways between community and facilities should be strengthened. Effective strategies to address family issues affecting women’s mental health and reduce stigma should be integrated across these platforms.

  6. 6.

    When social determinants are addressed as part of PMH interventions, women’s overall health and socioeconomic status improves. Interventions to improve PMH should also include solutions outside the traditional health arena: peer support groups, economic empowerment, and intimate partner violence interventions. Given the gendered nature of CPMDs, each of these interventions should be gender intentional and gender transformative [21, 22]. And partners should be included in interventions and acknowledged for the role they can play in PMH.

  7. 7.

    At the individual citizen level, we must work to address the paralyzing shame and stigma preventing women from seeking and accessing care and from having honest conversations about the burden that is impacting their lives and capabilities [23, 24]. Though we recognize that stigma is a social construct and one that must be changed at the societal level, we each have a role as individuals in making these changes in how we think, act and respond

Together, as a global community and as individuals, we can ensure that women everywhere have access to high-quality, respectful care for both their physical and mental wellbeing. If we address the underlying social determinants that predispose women to mental ill health, we will be able to shift the well-being of women and communities. As part of a human rights approach, this must be coupled with a commitment, at all levels of society, to improve the quality and coverage of interventions that address CPMDs. Without this work, we will continue to contribute to the silent burden carried by women and their children. The time for action is now.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable.

Notes

  1. For the purpose of this Commentary the postpartum period includes up to 2 years following childbirth.

Abbreviations

PMH:

Perinatal mental health

CPMD:

Common perinatal mental disorder

LMIC:

Low- and middle-income country

References

  1. Howard LM, Molyneaux E, Dennis CL, Rochat T, Stein A, Milgrom J. Non-psychotic mental disorders in the perinatal period. Lancet. 2014;384:1775–88. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(14)61276-9.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. The Partnership for Maternal Newborn & Child Health. Maternal mental health: why it matters and what countries with limited resources can do. Geneva: Switzerland; 2014.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Fisher J, de Mello MC, Patel V, Rahman A, Tran T, Holton S, et al. Prevalence and determinants of common perinatal mental disorders in women in low-and lower-middle-income countries: a systematic review. Bull World Health Organ. 2012;90:139–49.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health. Closing the gap in a generation: health equity through action on the social determinants of health. Final Report of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2008.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Patel V, Saxena S, Lund C, Thornicroft G, Baingana F, Bolton P, et al. The lancet commission on global mental health and sustainable development. Lancet. 2018;392:1553–98. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31612-X.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. Chmielewska B, Barratt I, Townsend R, Kalafat E, van der Meulen J, Gurol-Urganci I, et al. Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on maternal and perinatal outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Glob Heal. 2021;9:e759–72.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Villar J, Ariff S, Gunier RB, Thiruvengadam R, Rauch S, Kholin A, et al. Maternal and Neonatal Morbidity and Mortality Among Pregnant Women With and Without COVID-19 Infection: The INTERCOVID Multinational Cohort Study. JAMA Pediatr. 2021;175(8):817–26. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.1050. Erratum in: JAMA Pediatr. 2022;176(1):104.

  8. Kotlar B, Gerson E, Petrillo S, Langer A, Tiemeier H. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on maternal and perinatal health: a scoping review. Reprod Health. 2021;18(1):10. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12978-021-01070-6.

  9. Howard LM, Piot P, Stein A. No health without perinatal mental health. Lancet. 2014;384:1723–4. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(14)62040-7.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. World Health Organization. mhGAP intervention guide for mental, neurological and substance use disorders in non-specialized health settings : mental health gap action programme (mhGAP). Version 2. Geneva: WHO; 2019.

    Google Scholar 

  11. United Nations Children’s Fund. The state of the World’s children 2021: on my mind—promoting. New York: Protecting and Caring for Children’s Mental Health; 2021.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  12. World Health Organization, United Nations Children’s Fund, World Bank Group. Nurturing care for early childhood development: a framework for helping children survive and thrive to transform health and human potential. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2018. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

  13. United States Agency for International Development. Giving voice to the silent burden: maternal mental health technical consultation. Washington, DC; 2021. https://mmhtechcon.conference.tc/.

  14. Inter-Agency Standing Committee. IASC guidelines on mental health and psychosocial support in emergency settings. Geneva: IASC; 2006.

  15. Rahman A, Waqas A, Nisar A, Nazir H, Sikander S, Atif N. Improving access to psychosocial interventions for perinatal depression in low- and middle-income countries: lessons from the field. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2021;33:198–201. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540261.2020.1772551.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. Honikman S, Sigwebela S, Schneider M, Field S. Perinatal depression and anxiety in resource-constrained settings : interventions and health systems strengthening. In: Health Systems Trust. South African Health Review. 2020. p. 79–88.

  17. Rahman A, Akhtar P, Hamdani SU, Atif N, Nazir H, Uddin I, et al. Using technology to scale-up training and supervision of community health workers in the psychosocial management of perinatal depression: a non-inferiority, randomized controlled trial. Glob Ment Heal. 2019;6:e8. https://doi.org/10.1017/gmh.2019.7.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Muke SS, Shrivastava RD, Mitchell L, Khan A, Murhar V, Tugnawat D, et al. Acceptability and feasibility of digital technology for training community health workers to deliver brief psychological treatment for depression in rural India. Asian J Psychiatr. 2019;45:99–106. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajp.2019.09.006.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  19. Sikander S, Ahmad I, Atif N, Zaidi A, Vanobberghen F, Weiss HA, et al. Delivering the thinking healthy Programme for perinatal depression through volunteer peers: a cluster randomised controlled trial in Pakistan. Lancet Psychiatry. 2019;6:128–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30467-X.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  20. Fuhr DC, Weobong B, Lazarus A, Vanobberghen F, Weiss HA, Singla DR, et al. Delivering the thinking healthy Programme for perinatal depression through peers: an individually randomised controlled trial in India. Lancet Psychiatry. 2019;6:115–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30466-8.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  21. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gender and MNCH: a review of the evidence. Seattle; 2020.

  22. Lund C, Brooke-Sumner C, Baingana F, Baron EC, Breuer E, Chandra P, et al. Social determinants of mental disorders and the sustainable development goals: a systematic review of reviews. Lancet Psychiatry. 2018;5:357–69. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30060-9.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  23. McCauley M, et al. “I just wish it becomes part of routine care”: healthcare providers’ knowledge, attitudes and perceptions of screening for maternal mental health during and after pregnancy: a qualitative study. BMC psychiatry. 2019;19(1):1–8.

  24. Kola L, Bennett IM, Bhat A, Ayinde OO, Oladeji BD, Abiona D, et al. Stigma and utilization of treatment for adolescent perinatal depression in Ibadan Nigeria. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2020;20:1–8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

Not applicable.

Funding

The lead author (SM) was funded by USAID. Two of the authors (RL, PB) are from USAID. The views expressed are the authors’ own and the funder did not make the decision to publish. USAID had no role in the design of the study and collection, analysis, and interpretation of data.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

Author contributions were as follows: SM was responsible for conceptualization, writing - original draft, writing - review and editing. JF, SH, LM, RL, GCS, SBZ, TDG, IY, NC, AR, PB, CM, SS were responsible for conceptualization, writing - review and editing. And, MB, DHE, AP reviewed and edited. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shanon McNab.

Ethics declarations

Ethics approval and consent to participate

Not applicable.

Consent for publication

Not applicable.

Competing interests

The authors alone are responsible for the views expressed in this Comment and they do not necessarily represent the views, decisions or policies of the institutions with which they are affiliated. We declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

McNab, S., Fisher, J., Honikman, S. et al. Comment: silent burden no more: a global call to action to prioritize perinatal mental health. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth 22, 308 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-022-04645-8

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-022-04645-8

Keywords

  • Perinatal mental health
  • Common perinatal mental disorders
  • Call to action
  • Women’s health
  • Child health
  • Low-and-middle-income countries
  • Policy
  • Social determinants of health