Hey Canada, you need to do better (this is a rant)
I became a parent 5.5 years ago. The timing is important for the purposes of this piece, because, well, a lot has happened since I first experienced the responsibility of someone else’s life. A “new wave” of feminism began in the last decade—yup, this is extremely critical to the story of my experience. Women’s rights have come into question or been re-questioned in all parts of the world including in the great country of Canada (thanks politicians). Also in that time, I have had some serious lags in my mental health—also important for the purposes of this piece.
On that note, in the last five years awareness of mental health issues has also become a societal “thang”—people are taking mental health seriously and in my professional life, I’m seeing corporations (I’m a business journalist) make mental health for employees a priority. This is great news! Glad corporate Canada cares. And here we loop back to the feminism mention--#metoo #timesup and many other social movements have occurred. Also great news! Thank the universe that women are banding together and starting to speak up. Because if we don’t do it—who will?
These movements are all good news because they have become part of how we talk about being mothers, because as mothers, we are women. The two elements of who we are, are very entangled and everything we do as moms affects the next generation.
Rock bottom is scary when you’re doing it solo
So to continue my little intro, in the last almost 6 years I’ve also welcomed another child, celebrated almost 15 years with my partner and baby-daddy, continued to build my career, and moved several times—finally finding “home” in Northern Ontario. It’s been a ride, we’ve been busy. Suffice to say, mama’s done a LOT of growing up and growing wiser since her early 30s.
I’ve also become wise to some very eye-opening realities of the Canadian health care system, and that’s the other thing that is core to this story. Since 2014, I have witnessed first-hand some of my closest friends hit rock bottom with maternal mental health issues. Because of Bad Moms Canada starting in 2016, I’ve been privy to dozens of conversations about maternal mental health. I’ve spoken ad nauseum with countless women about mental health, about how women are treated in general in society, how mothers are overlooked all too often.
I have literally read, shared, or heard hundreds of stories about how moms in Canada have struggled not just with mental health issues, but with how their mental health issues were treated—by their closest peers whether good or bad, their partners, their doctors, their families, and on it goes.
If you are not a mom who has had an issue with mental health, I still urge you to listen up. Because here is what I’ve learned in my short span as a mother: if we don’t help moms, the next generation is losing out. I know first-hand how it feels to struggle with your mental health, and I know how isolating it can be to not know where to turn. Now imagine, if you haven’t had the experience (I really don’t want to exclude people here), that you are struggling AND—you are responsible for other smaller people’s lives.
It can all go very wrong, very quickly. I can direct you to many of the blogs we’ve posted on BMC. I can ask you to read the stories in the news of moms who have lost the battle with mental illness. But instead, I’m hoping you’ll reflect on your own experience with the health care system in Canada, perhaps pick out where you think the flaws might be, and maybe share with us.
The Bad Moms Canada blog was not borne (ha ha, pardon the pun) in a vacuum. The very reason it exists is because I was feeling very very isolated in my own issues as a mom in 2016, and wanted to find some community with my friends who also had the urge to share and celebrate (and mourn) experiences of motherhood.
Through all the learning that I’ve done personally over the past few years, I have learned about some really interesting organizations, and I’ve had some great conversations with people in other organizations who are trying to help moms. And those conversations have illuminated some big holes in the Canadian health care system that if fixed, could really address post-partum mental health issues.
This is the problem: MOMS ARE NOT GETTING THE CARE THEY NEED.
This is why that sucks: Moms are arguably the most productive, and one of the most influential social groups there is. We can argue this if you would like, but I’m certain that I’m correct. I have spent the better part of my life observing and writing about people, and I can tell you, there is no force greater than a motivated mom. So it sucks that moms in Canada don’t get the help they need because I think we all know, if they were really supported – I mean like really really supported, they could probably take over the world, in a good way.
A group in the United States is doing something REALLY important
Back in the Spring, a cool opportunity came up through BMC. I had the opportunity to chat with a really great mama and mama advocate superstar named Shannon Hennig, who is the Program Director for the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative (MMHRC) out of the United States. The MMHRC doesn’t directly implement programs in the health care system for moms in the States, but is rather a collective space for moms who have lived experience with a mental illness and who want to engage in research. This is the official info on MMHRC: the organization’s work is done collaboratively, with a focus on research that can have an immediate and lasting impact on maternal mental health. The MMHRC accomplishes its goals by: developing research priorities that are based on the wants, needs and preferences of moms who are part of the community; in collaboration with partners, contributes to applied research that addresses what moms have identified as most important to their mental health, equips moms with the information and skills necessary to be active participants in research through easy to understand, accessible online training, tools, and webinars, and uses research to create tools and training opportunities for moms and providers that directly impact each of these groups’ ability to meet the needs of their peers and patients experiencing maternal mental illness.
The MMHRC also manages and engages a network of moms interested in immediate involvement in funded clinical trials. Moms are able to easily find and enroll in research projects through MMHRC partnerships and the MMHRC uses effective knowledge translation that focuses on information sharing using common, easy to understand language and terminology. The MMHRC also works with moms and providers to develop effective ways to share this vital information using technology and work with researchers to assist with participant recruitment, patient advisory panels, information dissemination and strategy.
It’s a mouthful, I know. But it’s important that organizations like this exist, anywhere, because they are taking the next step in helping and caring for moms. My question for Shannon was essentially, why do you do what you do and why is it important? I can tell you why I personally think it’s important, and it’s the point that was made before: I don’t believe that moms in Canada who are having mental health issues are getting the care they need, even in areas of the country where access to healthcare is pretty straightforward. Now imagine a rural community in the farthest north of our great country, where mental health resources are virtually unavailable—what does a mama do when she slides into a rut she can’t get out of?
These are the things that plague me, because really, while I have my own commentary on a lack of attention to specifically post-partum moms’ mental health needs, I worry more about the moms out there who have ZERO ACCESS. When speaking with Shannon, we agreed that “hey, at least where we live we could go out there and ask for help.”
The journey to sharing leads to better care for moms in the future
As most conversations go, especially in my line of work as a journalist, Shannon and I started talking about experiences as new moms when we chatted. Shannon’s story began when she experienced the first signs of prenatal anxiety and depression with her son, who is now five. She was, by all accounts, having a “good pregnancy.” But what was going on in her mind was very different to what you might picture a “good pregnancy” looking like. “Suddenly at 34 weeks, I stopped sleeping and started having a lot of anxiety. And not just a little, but I mean up in the middle of the night and fueled by hormones and discomforts that go along with being pregnant.” Sound familiar to anyone? Often, this is how things can go south, very very quickly.
At this point, medical professionals have an opportunity. In Shannon’s case, she went to her doctor, expressed her concerns about her mental health, and was met with the brush-off: “oh, all pregnant moms lose sleep, everybody gets nervous, you’re probably just exaggerating.” What did that do to Shannon, and what does that do to every mom that gets that line? That type of casual shrug often becomes an internal broken record. In Shannon’s case, the result was the feeling “well ok, I’m just not cut out to be a mom.”
She left work early, started her maternity leave early, and slipped into a deep depression. Yes, she had a history, and yes, that should have come into the discussion with her doctor, but it did not. And Shannon herself told me “never, ever had it been that severe.” Compounding things being already difficult was a very quick birth, her husband barely making it to the hospital for the big event. And the whole experience “was quite traumatic.” Her son coded after he was born, things weren’t good, and Shannon’s anxiety only spiralled (he was fine ultimately and so was she, physically, but mentally—that’s where things got hairy.)
Shannon told me that within 10 minutes of getting home after her birth at the hospital, things got out of control and she knew that her anxiety was so severe she needed help: “something was very, very wrong.” She went back to the hospital, staying for four days, but received the wrong diagnosis for her situation. Shannon ended up back home, sliding further into a depression. “I had a lot of extreme anxiety, and then to make it worse, I started having symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder,” she told me.
After two months, Shannon once again advocated for herself, spoke with a psychiatrist, and got medication. That was almost a year later. The search to connect with other moms began once Shannon got her own illness under control, and eventually, she ended up being part of the research group that is MMHRC.
Interestingly, it is because of the isolation I felt as a mom that Bad Moms Canada was created, and really, why I am here interviewing people like Shannon in 2019. Shannon’s concerns about how moms get treated when they are having mental health issues echoed my own: “I had such a terrible experience, and a horrible time after my son was born, and it seemed like nobody took me seriously. And I thought that if hey, a well-educated white woman who works in the health care system can't navigate the medical system and can't get help, what is it like for people who are not in my social or cultural group?” And so Shannon started to work more in an advocacy space, doing sure, support online, and then started getting involved in research.
And here we are, with a Canadian group of like-minded mamas, who all make up the followers of Bad Moms Canada, who are reading about each other’s experiences, and ultimately, trying to help each other. I’m proud to see how much people lift each other up online.
But I am not proud of my country’s health care system from a mental health standpoint. And that’s too bad. Because Canada is pretty awesome on most fronts.
So what can we do? Well, I’m not sure of the answer myself.
If you have been to a doctor-appointed counsellor ever, you know that one of the first things that a counsellor will say to you is: “if I think you are a danger to yourself or your family, I have to report it.”
HOLD UP. That question in itself, and please note I completely understand the obligations of medical professionals, can be VERY scary for a woman who is having mental health issues, especially at the beginning stages when that woman has maybe just become a mom, is spiralling downward into depression, and all she wants to do is run. Or maybe she has intrusive thoughts that make her think things that aren’t really true or she’s having ideas she’s never had before… all things that can be chalked up to legit mental health problems. This can be really really scary for moms.
So if you are that counsellor, or the doctor that told her to go see the counsellor, do you think she’s going to tell you the truth, if she thinks you are going to take her kids away? Or God forbid, take her away from her kids?
The answer is probably no, most of the time. Again, this sucks. Because you’ve got a whole group of women who maybe in their social circles will talk until the cows come home about mental health. But will that same mam talk with a person who may actually be able to help them with strategy and methods to tackle their struggles? Do you think moms will be honest about their mental health if their families are at stake?
This is an actual question.
And what about post-partum processes with your OB? At what point in the 6 weeks of after-care do Canadian moms really get the opportunity to divulge if they are feeling more than just baby blues?
These are actual questions, that need actual answers. I had a traumatic birth with my second child, and I kid you not, not one medical professional said to me in the weeks that followed: “hey, are you doing ok with that scary labour and delivery? That was kind of a big deal was it not?” Or: “Do you wanna talk about what just happened to your body?” I won’t get into the gory details, but, my post-partum experience with the second babe was not good.
I think the point I am trying to make here, and Shannon and I agreed on, is that in Canada, and in every country, there needs to be universal screening for post-partum disorders, and then a process to gently handle the mamas that need help.
The goal with Bad Moms Canada has always been to raise awareness about the issues and challenges around motherhood, and those issues can be small but they can also be about mental health. So as we move forward, and learn from each other, what can be done?
Moms are like any other group in society that need support. Moms in Canada need better mental health care, because they are one of the most valuable and influential groups in society. The future really does depend on what Canada can do, to do better.
I think there are moms out there that could probably save the world, but they need some support first.
Don't you agree?
For more info on the MMHRC visit https://research4moms.com/about/.