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Health Series: Research Spotlight

Fear of being seen as a ‘bad mother’ prevents women seeking help for postnatal depression

Study identifies the main factors which prevent women from speaking about their postnatal depression with healthcare professionals

by George Wigmore (Senior Communications Officer)

A new study has identified three factors which prevent many women seeking help for postnatal depression in the UK.

The researchers from City, University of London, and Royal College of General Practitioners found that fear of stigma and being seen as a ‘bad mother’ led to women not mentioning psychological distress following birth despite regular contact with health services. Other factors also included difficulty in recognising that there is a problem, and bad previous experiences with healthcare professionals.

As a result, the authors suggest that perinatal care provision needs to better inform women and their partners about the symptoms of perinatal mental health problems as part of routine antenatal care while also ensuring continuity of care. The study is published in the journal British Journal of General Practice.

Depression affects as many as 10 to 15 per cent of women after having a baby, and has serious implications for the health of mothers and children. Currently in the UK, women are screened for postnatal depression at around six weeks postpartum. However, few studies have been conducted in the UK about why many women do not seek help for perinatal psychological distress.

To address this issue, the authors carried out a review of women’s experiences in the UK, analysing 24 research studies on women seeking help for psychological distress during pregnancy or in the first year after birth, subsequently identifying the three key factors which may act as barriers to seeking help. These barriers were: not identifying a problem, the influence of healthcare professionals, and stigma.

Professor Susan Ayers, Professor of Maternal and Child Health at City, University of London and co-author of the paper, said:

“We found that there are three main factors which prevent women from speaking about their postnatal depression with healthcare professionals. In particular, we saw that women felt under pressure to be ‘good mothers’ and that feeling they had ‘failed’ impacted negatively on their mental health and their likelihood to seek help. In addition, difficulty identifying they had a problem and bad experiences with healthcare led to women ‘self-silencing’.

“With a large number of women affected by postnatal psychological problems – and due to the serious health implications which can result for mothers and children – it is important that perinatal care services look into ways to better inform women and their partners about the symptoms, and also deliver better continuity of care. Such developments can greatly help by enabling women with mental health problems to feel safe and secure in disclosing their feelings and asking for assistance.”

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