The NDP has promised to develop a national strategy for postpartum mental health if they form government, party leader Jagmeet Singh told an advocacy group on Monday. It’s a sorely-lacking strategy that could improve the lives of new mothers across the country, according to the Canadian Perinatal Mental Health Collaborative.
Eleven years ago, when co-founder Patricia Tomasi was pregnant for the first time, none of her doctors talked to her about mental health, she told HuffPost Canada. The Barrie, Ont. mom of two had struggled with anxiety and depression in her past, which she said she now realizes should have been a red flag. But the topic was never discussed.
After her first daughter was born, Tomasi started behaving irrationally, she recalled. After a long depressive period, her mood shifted suddenly. Her mind started racing, cycling through all kinds of bizarre ideas. She spoke quickly and made impulsive decisions. She had delusions and hallucinations. She quit her job because she thought angels were telling her she should. She ended up losing her house.
Watch: Catherine Reitman on why we have to talk about postpartum depression. Story continues after video.
When her second daughter was born five years later, she had read up on postpartum depression and thought she’d be prepared. But she wasn’t.
“The symptoms felt like they were ten times worse,” Tomasi said. She fell into a deep depression and was catatonic. “I was having daily massive panic attacks. I was bedridden. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t look after the baby.”
She found a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with bipolar disorder and bipolar postpartum depression.
That experience inspired her to start the Canadian Perinatal Mental Health Collaborative, along with nurse Jaime Charlebois. The group advocates for a national strategy to address perinatal mental health. (Tomasi says that term is preferred to “postpartum depression,” which encompasses fewer experiences, such as anxiety or psychosis, which can occur towards the end of pregnancy as well as postpartum.) They’d like to see federal legislation that would make depression screenings part of pregnancy care, with access to treatment available for all Canadians.
Nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of Canadian mothers reported feelings of consistent with either postpartum depression or anxiety, according to Statistics Canada. Younger mothers are more at risk of developing a perinatal mental illness, as are mothers with a history of depression.
In late August, Tomasi and Charlebois sent out letters to the leader of Canada’s federal parties, asking them where they stand on building a national strategy for perinatal mental health. Jagmeet Singh was the only leader who responded directly, sending the group an email on Monday night.
“New parents shouldn’t have to worry about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders while taking care of their newborns and growing families,” he wrote in the letter, which Tomasi shared with HuffPost Canada.
“An NDP government will work with our provincial, territorial and Indigenous partners, as well as families with lived experiences to develop a national perinatal strategy for Canada.”
An NDP spokesperson told HuffPost Canada that the strategy would be “developed collaboratively with parents, medical professionals, provinces and territories” and would “very likely” include awareness campaigns, support for better screening, increased funding for research and expanded access to mental health care supports for new parents.
Tomasi said Singh’s response helped to validate the significance of an issue many new parents face. “I was ecstatic,” she said. “No Canadian politician — municipal, provincial or federal — has ever, ever stood up for perinatal mental health in Canada, has ever taken this issue seriously.”
The other parties contacted by HuffPost Canada have made pledges to mental health, but none have specifically committed to a national perinatal mental health strategy.
“The first months of a child’s life are precious, and we know it can also be a very challenging time for new parents, especially mothers,” a Liberal Party spokesperson told HuffPost Canada. The Liberals plan to increase the Canada Child Benefit by 15 per cent for families with children under one, and say they’ll increase guaranteed paid family leave.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, “have a proud history of making important investments in mental health, including creating the Mental Health Commission of Canada,” a spokesperson for the party said. He added that if the Tories form government, they plan to maintain and increase health transfers to the provinces, including mental health investments.
And the Green Party said they would invest $1 billion in mental health, a fund that would benefit people affected by perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
“We want to make sure that all Canadians have affordable access to mental health care, including those affected by a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder,” they said in a statement.
No matter who wins next week’s election, Tomasi said this is “an all-party issue.”
Pregnant women are regularly checked for a wide variety of physical ailments, she said — mental health should be a part of that roundup, too.
“We go through routine blood work, we test for RH, rubella, hepatitis, gestational diabetes, streptococci. Why aren’t we being tested and screened for perinatal mental health when it can have such a detrimental effect on not only the mother and the father, but also the baby?”
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