Politics

NDP asks federal health minister for national mental health strategy for pregnant women, new moms

As the pandemic drives an increase in the number of mental health crises among pregnant women and new mothers, the NDP is pushing for a national mental health strategy to help women through pregnancy and into motherhood.

Private members' bill would establish national mental health screening program

The NDP want pregnant women to get mental health screening alongside other medical tests throughout their pregnancy and afterwards. (Tatyana Gladskih/stock.adobe.com)

As the pandemic drives an increase in the number of mental health crises among pregnant women and new mothers, the NDP is pushing for a national mental health strategy to help women through pregnancy and into motherhood.

The Canadian Perinatal Mental Health Collaborative, a non-profit mental health advocacy organization, says that in normal times, roughly 20 per cent of women and 10 per cent of men suffer from mental health issues immediately before and after birth — but that figure has doubled during the pandemic.

NDP health critic Don Davies has written to Health Minister Patty Hajdu asking her to develop a perinatal mental health strategy that would provide care to women over the period from conception to a year after a child is born.

"Canada does not have a comprehensive national strategy, mandate or directive to guide how health care practitioners should assess, diagnosis, treat or provide follow-up to individuals suffering from perinatal mood and anxiety disorders," Davies said in the letter, being released publicly today.

"This puts Canada out of step with jurisdictions like the United Kingdom, Australia and many parts of the United States."

Davies' private members bill C-306 calls for a national strategy that includes mental health screening during the full perinatal period.

"There are prescribed screenings throughout a pregnant person's pregnancy. Some of them are for gestational diabetes, that's tested twice during pregnancy. But In most places in Canada, not a single question is asked to assess the woman's psycho-social or mental health position at that point," Davies told CBC News.

Prevention and cure

Bill C-306 also would expand access to specialist perinatal mental health care in the community, increase awareness of perinatal mental health disorders and improve training for health care professionals so they are better able to detect symptoms of ill health.

Davies said that pregnant women and new mothers are often expected to be "glowing" and enjoying the happiest moment of their lives — when the reality for some women is quite different.

'Sometimes your family doesn’t know what to do, or they don’t know what questions to ask,' said Chernell Bartholomew, a mother of three. (Zoom)

Chernell Bartholomew gave birth to her third child six months ago; she took part in the NDP's news conference today. She said new mothers should have access to more consistent mental health support after they give birth.

"We need a team after [birth] to help us get back to functioning, to help us get back to physical strength, to help us get back to emotional and mental strength," said Bartholomew.

"Even a few days or a few weeks can make a huge, huge difference in how we are able to care for ourselves and others."

Bartholomew said safety measures introduced during the pandemic exposed gaps in the mental health support system that were less obvious during her previous pregnancies.

The bill also would ensure that patients have "culturally relevant" treatments that are "gender-affirming and inclusive" and  that efforts are made to combat the stigma associated with asking for help during pregnancy.

Davies is making the case that treating mothers down the road, once their mental illness has had time to metastasize, is more expensive to the economy and to the federal government.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," he said.

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