We’ve written before on GlobalMama (free registration required) about the mental health aspect of maternal health and how mental health is missing from the global health agenda. The recent Lancet stillbirth series should bring the issue of maternal mental health because for every stillborn child, there is a mother who has lost a child. Also, many stillbirths result from traumatic births, meaning many mothers are exposed to additional risk factors.
A simple internet search for “stillbirth and maternal mental health” returns more results for, what one might consider, the opposite relationship, namely, the link between a mother’s mental health prior to birth and the birth outcome rather than the impact of a stillbirth on a mother’s mental health. A 2008 study suggests that women who suffer from mental illness are more likely to experience stillbirth than women without a history of mental illness. However, the researchers conclude that it is not necessarily the mental illness itself that causes the relationship: “Higher risk of perinatal loss may be linked to factors associated with maternal psychiatric illness in general, such as insufficient attendance for antenatal care and unhealthy lifestyles rather than the maternal mental illness itself.”
Fortunately, some of the Google Scholar results look into the impact of stillbirth or infant death on a mother’s mental health. Also, select results on PubMed Central address the issue, but in general, there is a lack of data available, particularly in the developing world where most stillbirths and traumatic births occur.
Researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School are currently looking into this exact question, receiving a grant to study “Maternal Mental and Physical Health Outcomes after Stillbirth and Infant Death.” They are studying women in the US “to improve mental health care and outcomes of bereaved mothers after stillbirth and infant death.” More studies, such as these, are needed, with a particular focus on developing countries in order to fully address the spectrum of maternal health, including mental health needs after stillbirth or delivery in general.