Maternal mental health matters – every day of the year (Guest Opinion by Monique Winnett)

Monique Winnett, a doctor of psychology, is a clinical psychologist and coordinator of Integrated Behavioral Health Services at St. Joseph’s Health, Syracuse.

“Being a mother is easy.” This is a phrase I don’t think I’ve ever heard, whether in my professional or personal capacity. Such sentiment couldn’t seem further from the truth than during the world’s two-year battle with the Covid-19 pandemic. Parents have been stretched further and pushed harder than in recent memory. Boundaries are blurred between the roles of parent and teacher, working parent and stay-at-home parent, electronics police and patrol with mask and hand sanitizer. Caregivers are forced to protect their children and keep them healthy and safe in ways that current generations have never experienced. Children have struggled with increased rates of anxiety, depression and behavioral problems. Parents also struggle with their own increased problems with behavioral symptoms.

As a psychologist, I have seen the reverberating impact of this pandemic on my patients, especially mothers. I have seen mothers struggle to help their children with schoolwork, while also working to earn enough income for their families. I have seen the increased concern and anxiety of mothers as they weighed the risks and benefits of keeping their children at home versus sending them to school. I have worked with other healthcare providers who are concerned about the risk they pose to their own families by caring for patients infected with Covid-19. Parents struggle with housing concerns, often live in unsafe conditions or become homeless.

I’ve seen first hand what the data and statistics have shown. In some studies, nearly 60% of mothers indicated that increased stress and worry related to the pandemic was negatively impacting their mental health. Reports of symptoms of depression and anxiety in adults nearly quadrupled in some studies, with rates increasing more dramatically among parents than many other demographics. Data also indicated that significantly more mothers than fathers left the workforce due to childcare issues during the pandemic.

As the stressors increased, the supports were reduced. Parents reported feeling detached and less connected to others because they were isolated or engaged in less meaningful interpersonal activities. Not being able to work outside the home or participate in previous hobbies or social groups also negatively impacted mood and coping. What we have seen is a significant increase in ‘risk factors’ such as stress and behavioral problems, and a decrease in ‘protective factors’ such as social support, enjoyable activities and access to health care.

As we take a break this weekend to celebrate Mother’s Day, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on how we, as a society, support mothers and how mothers can best take care of themselves. The benefits of exercise, healthy socialization, involvement in enjoyable and meaningful activities, time outdoors, and mindful time that promote healthy relationships with ourselves and others can have a profound impact on our mental and emotional health. We must encourage and prioritize this healthy coping in others in our own lives.

While taking time for self-care may seem like the biggest challenge for moms, who feel guilty about prioritizing themselves, these are actually the people who can benefit the most from that time. Only when we are our healthiest and best version of ourselves can we continue to be loving supports for others.

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