Maternal suicide. It’s something we don’t discuss enough, despite the stark reality of the problem. Although society is getting better at talking about mental health and normalizing mental illness, we shy away when the shadow of suicide and suicidal ideation looms. But without opening up, it’s hard to move forward. We allow new moms to continue feeling alone in their struggles without talking about it.
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death during pregnancy and through one year postpartum. Even though the overall number is fairly low and considered rare, it’s alarming. And for every instance of perinatal or postpartum suicide, many more new mothers are experiencing suicidal ideation or thoughts of self-harm.
Without knowing the risk factors involved with maternal suicide, it’s hard to continue with the conversation, so let’s dive in.
Pregnancy creates a surge of hormones, and the hormones shift again during the postpartum period. Women who are sensitive to these hormonal changes can experience mental illness as a result, increasing the likelihood of suicidal ideation.
In addition, unplanned pregnancies or pregnancies resulting from domestic violence lead to a higher risk of maternal suicide.
Those who have previously experienced mental health conditions are at risk for developing perinatal and postpartum mental illnesses. Additionally, women who have stopped taking medication due to pregnancy or breastfeeding are at an increased risk of these thoughts and feelings of suicide or self-harm.
Truly, there are so many risk factors, from having a baby pre-term to being unable to breastfeed, to returning to work postpartum, and so many more. In the end, it’s related to the fact that becoming a mom is a major life shift. We change hormonally, physically, and mentally and often experience a lot of judgment throughout the journey. This leads to the next point: the importance of a support system during the perinatal period.
Support for New Moms
Pregnancy and the first year of motherhood can be incredibly isolating. In the last couple of years, during a global pandemic, new moms have been more isolated than ever before.
We don’t need social media shouting “breast is best,” and we don’t need judgmental comments about baby sleep. We need to know that someone cares. It’s easy to play it off like everything is great, even when we’re struggling so hard. Having friends and family who regularly check in makes a difference when it comes to acting on suicidal thoughts and feelings.
Doctors have mental health screenings, but new moms don’t always feel safe admitting their darkest thoughts and feelings. If we’re experiencing intrusive thoughts, we might believe that someone may take our baby away if we express them. During pregnancy, we fear that others may look down on us for having mental health conditions or battling suicidal ideation.
To a degree, it’s up to us to open up when someone asks, “Are you okay?” This way, the people in our support system can respond accordingly and be better equipped to handle the situation. Spouses and partners could do with a debriefing on perinatal and postpartum mood disorders, to know what signs or red flags to watch out for throughout the perinatal period.
Seeking talk therapy during pregnancy can help carry a mom-to-be throughout those 40 weeks and into postpartum life, offering significant support and suicide prevention.
Sharing Our Stories
As mentioned before, it’s hard to move forward if we don’t open up in the first place. Mothers can express their thoughts and feelings, even the dark ones, and be amazing moms at the same time. By sharing our personal struggles, we let others connect with us. The support grows stronger as we let others know they’re not alone in what they’re feeling.
When we open up about suicide, suicidal ideation, and thoughts of self-harm, we tear down the curtain that has been up for far too long. The topic has become less taboo and more normalized. The more we share our own pain, the easier it becomes to find hope and recovery. Our babies deserve it, and so do all the moms going through it.
In an article from June 2021, one mom details her experience with suicidal ideation, including how it was related to sleep deprivation (a VERY common experience for new parents). Despite handing out pamphlets about Postpartum Depression at work, she couldn’t bring herself to open up. In the end, sharing our stories is how we help others understand and how we strengthen our circle of support. Once this mother realized the importance of letting it all out and seeking help, she was able to overcome her suicidal ideation and help others find hope with her story.
How Family & Friends Can Help
Part of destigmatizing the topic of maternal suicide comes from the mother’s friends and family. When we open up about our struggles, we must be met with warmth and understanding. Discussing suicide is alarming. However, if you have a new mom in your own life who is struggling, it’s important to let them know you’re available to talk without judgment. A new mama with a mental health condition is still an amazing mom!
Friends and family can also assist in searching for resources or locating therapists who could be a good fit for their loved ones.
New mothers, regardless of their physical and mental health, need a village around them. It takes a strong community to keep new moms from feeling isolated.
Reducing the Stigma
The more we share our stories and educate those around us about maternal suicide, the less alone new moms feel. When we normalize the conversation, not just between the mother and a professional but also among friends and family, that is when we see the shift. Although suicide and suicidal ideation may never be comfortable to talk about, they are problems that impact a number of new mothers and deserve to be addressed without judgment.
Alicia Rius a Certified Mental Health Coach, parts work practitioner, entrepreneur, and mother.
Her journey into motherhood wasn’t what she expected. She felt lonely and anxious and experienced many draining emotions that made her feel guilty and ashamed for not living a blissful life with her newborn.
Since 2016, her mission has been to eradicate perinatal suffering by educating mothers about perinatal mood disorders and coaching women for a healthier and happier transition into motherhood.
Her holistic approach brings clarity, direction, and positive support to her clients throughout their Matrescence journey.