“She was living, but she wasn’t alive”: May 4th marks World Maternal Mental Health Day

“‘I have too much mental health and breastfeeding support,’ says no family EVER!” Felisha Floyd of The B.L.A.C.K. Course has accurately asserted. Around the world, as many as 1 in 5 new mothers experience some type of perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMADs).  Often, PMADs go unnoticed and/or untreated and can have tragic and long-term consequences to families and subsequently societies.

The World Maternal Mental Health (MMH) Campaign’s blog features the sometimes harrowing, sometimes triumphant stories of those enduring PMADs. 

“It didn’t look anything like what the brochures told me it would look like….For me, PPD/PPA was a sneaky vixen that tricked my mind into thinking that every new mom felt like this,” one contributor writes. “That I was living in a cruel joke of a world where no one tells you that as soon as that baby pops out, you will never feel the same way again. The sneaky vixen told me that we’d made a huge mistake. We weren’t supposed to have a baby. That what I thought I wanted more than anything my whole life, was something that just wasn’t for me. I didn’t feel like this baby I was holding was mine. It belonged to the universe but I wasn’t his mom.”

Another shares, “I would look into the mirror and wonder who was the person looking back at me.  She looked like me, but did not feel like me.  There was no spark in her eyes.  She was living, but she wasn’t alive.”  

May 4 marks World Maternal Mental Health Day, time to reflect on why we need to pay attention to maternal mental health, influence policy and drive social change, reducing the stigma of maternal mental health. 

Photo by Matthew Ball on Unsplash

The MMH Taskforce has curated a hub for individuals and organizations to find information about MMH and suggest a variety of ways to get involved including a social media toolkit with simple actions. 

Last year, the Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance (MMHLA) compiled the Perinatal Mental Health Advocacy Toolkit,  “designed to help perinatal mental health (PMH) advocates understand the importance of their voices in raising awareness and influencing public policy to better support the mental health of women and other birthing people during the perinatal timeframe. Recognizing that advocacy and lobbying may sound scary or feel overwhelming, this Toolkit provides information and tools to empower advocates to tell their stories effectively, to build an advocacy network, and to put advocacy into action.” The document is complete with worksheets so that participants can build their own Toolkits with items like talking points, scripts for telephone calls, sample emails and letters, and more.

This work is of critical importance as we know that the health of mothers influences the health of the entire family. 

Dr. Beryl Watnick, PhD has pointed out that the “mother infant bond is of profound importance. The brain patterns in babies can mirror the brain patterns in depressed mothers, but when women with depression are taught how to engage their babies in spite of their depression, their children’s depressed brain patterns can reverse themselves. This is the power of parenting.” 

Although it is true that there is a vast amount of work to do in order to de-stigmatize maternal mental health and better support mothers and their families, there are also simultaneously a great deal of successes to celebrate. There are effective and well-researched treatment options available to help women recover, like breastfeeding. Individuals can connect with knowledgeable providers using Postpartum Support International’s database

One such provider is Jabina Coleman, LSW, MSW, CLC, IBCLC aka The Lactation Therapist, providing clinical support, resources and tools for the start of a successful breastfeeding journey and adjustment into parenthood. 

“Everybody Wants to Hold the Baby, Who Will Hold the Mother?” Coleman’s poignant credo. On her website, she lays out how to effectively hold mothers, with an emphasis on addressing the maternal mortality crisis that affects Black women who are dying three to four times the rate of their white counterparts.

In addition to the resources provided by the MMH Taskforce, MMHLA, and The Lactation Therapist, there are a variety of other opportunities to learn about and support MMH.

The Michigan Breastfeeding Network is hosting “Human Lactation and Mental Health: Best Practices” with presenters Tameka Jackson-Dyer, BASc, IBCLC, CHW, Rosa Gardiner, RN, IBCLC, Mistel de Varona, IBCLC, and Kara Smith, BSN, RN, CLC, PMH-C. You can register for the webinar here

Kathleen Kendall Tackett’s, PhD, IBCLC, FAPA presentation Does Breastfeeding Protect Maternal Mental Health? The Role of Oxytocin and Stress is available here

The American Heart Association, with funding support from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health program, is hosting a webinar titled “Mixing Milk + Meds: Assessing Infant Risk during Breastfeeding” on Wednesday, June 15, at 2 p.m. ET. Speakers from the Infant Risk Center will discuss how to evaluate which medications are safe for breastfeeding patients.

Breastfeeding in shelters

Among the many effects of the novel coronavirus, the pandemic has exposed our nation’s deficiencies: emergency unpreparedness, racial health disparities, our “highly polarized, fragmented, and individualistic society…” (I would add arrogant), and the failure of capitalism.  In marginalized populations, poverty, health inequities, and other burdens are amplified during an outbreak or other emergency. 

Long before the pandemic hit, individuals and advocacy organizations have been ringing the alarm, calling for better access to education, better healthcare, and equity and justice for all.

Of these trailblazers is Powerhouse Nikki Lee RN, BSN, MS, Mother of 2, IBCLC,RLC, CCE, CIMI, CST (cert.appl.), ANLC, CKC, RYT whose recent endeavor includes creating and implementing the 10 Steps to a Breastfeeding Friendly Shelter

In her role at the City of Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Lee noticed the challenges breastfeeding people face in shelters. 

The barriers are a result of our cultural attitude toward lactating people and misunderstandings about their bodies and needs. 

Lee talks about issues of privacy and ‘fairness’ in a shelter. Organizational dress codes often require residents to dress modestly, so when a person exposes their breasts to feed a baby, other residents can wonder why they’re not allowed to wear short shorts. Parents can express concern about the teenage boys in their families seeing breasts while a baby is being fed.

There’s the concern over safe milk storage and the mythology around reimbursement through the Child and Adult Care Food Program. Shelter staff may believe that if a mother breastfeeds, the facility will lose money to buy food because the allotted amount for infant formula isn’t getting used. Lee clarifies that if a mother breastfeeds, the institution will have more money to spend on food.  

Just like in the rest of the US, there tends to be a push for formula feeding because the baby’s intake is easily measured, and staff are more comfortable with what is familiar, i.e. bottle-feeding

Lee continues, “There is a genuine honesty from people who don’t understand anything about breastfeeding, ‘Why are we breastfeeding?’ ‘Why are we bothering?’”  Staff in hospitals have been educated about breastfeeding over the past few decades; staff in shelters have not.

So when she conducts trainings, she starts at the rudimentary level of ‘what are mammals?’ 

“All the worst mythology that you can imagine is in the shelter,” Lee says. “All the worst in how society treats mothers and babies gets magnified in shelters.” 

With the problem identified, Lee says she started “from scratch in a way,” looking for a written policy to support breastfeeding people.  Early on in her search, she followed up on a news story featuring a homeless mother in Hawaii. She posted inquiries on Lactnet, CDC listserv, international online forums, Facebook groups, and reached out to shelters at random wondering if they had breastfeeding policies . 

“Nothing,” Lee reports. “There is probably a shelter somewhere that has a policy, but after two years of a global search, I wasn’t able to find it.” 

In all her search,  Lee found one published document— a Canadian study looking at the factors that influence breastfeeding practices of mothers living in a maternity shelter– that could be helpful. 

Lee wrote the first draft of the 10 Steps to a Breastfeeding Friendly Shelter with policies like the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding and Ten Steps to Breastfeeding-Friendly Child Care in mind. 

She sent it out to colleagues at CHOP’s Homeless Health Initiative for feedback, and for quite a while, there was none. Lee’s colleague Melissa Berrios Johnson, MSW,  a social work trainer with HHI, and the convenor of its breastfeeding workgroup subcommittee, helped to make the policy reality. 

Partner agency Philadelphia Health Management Corporation (PHMC) received a grant that funded research which took the policy to four different shelters for staff and resident feedback. 

“Everyone, residents and staff alike, felt this policy was important and feasible,” Lee says. 

PHMC’s next step was to identify a shelter staff member to become a breastfeeding champion. This champion would be provided with free breastfeeding training, and receive an honorarium.

As program oversight changed though, “breastfeeding champion” became a job, with a list of responsibilities. So far, Lee says they’ve only found four people out of 10 shelters who are willing to take on the task.

“There are some folks in shelters working hard to make things better,” Lee says. “They are those champions, most of whom have breastfed themselves.”

Currently, Lee and colleagues are in the process of developing training for staff members and ironing out how to help staff implement the policy.  

Lee’s and co-authors Alexandra Ernst MPH, and Vanesa Karamanian MD, MPH landmark paper about the 10 Steps to a Breastfeeding Friendly Shelter has been submitted to the  Journal of Human Lactation (JHL)

At present, COVID has put all of this work on hold.