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Maternal mental health refers to the emotional well-being of mothers. It encompasses women’s experiences with behavioral health during reproduction, pregnancy, and beyond.

From first bleed to last, the female brain is at the mercy of the hormones that seem to come out of nowhere and then disappear again. Couple common experiences such as postpartum depression with the demands of being a parent, and it becomes easy to neglect mental health support. 

Both biologically and socially, the responsibility of childbearing falls disproportionately on women. This burden leads to higher rates of mental health conditions for mothers, but luckily there are solutions.

The Maternal Mental Health Journey

It is interesting (and perhaps a little startling) to consider that the moment an adolescent girl has her first period, it also means that her body is now capable of carrying a baby. Here are the unique challenges that biological women face at each stage of reproductive health. 

Adolescence and Early Adulthood

The first menstrual cycle can be a time of significant stress. During the onset of hormonal fluctuations and physical changes, girls may experience mood swings; possibly becoming more tearful, anxious, testy with family and friends, etc. This is also a time when symptoms of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety first manifest. 

However, as young women learn to navigate menstruation, they typically set aside the challenges of reproduction for a while. Rest while you can female brain.

The Perinatal Stages: Becoming a Mother

Pregnant woman with firstborn child reflecting on her maternal mental health journey

For those who choose to become mothers or who become mothers unexpectedly, next comes conception, pregnancy, and the postpartum period. Hormones surge during conception and emotions become more vibrant as periods cease. 

Following childbirth, a significant drop in estrogen and progesterone levels can contribute to postpartum mood and anxiety disorders, affecting approximately 1 in 5 new mothers. Ideally, mothers get help from mental health professionals and treatment if they need it. 

As periods starts again after childbirth, a mother is likely to feel shifts in brain chemistry and mood. Eventually, she may find relief in the rhythm of her menstrual cycle, but, if she has another baby, the cycle of hormonal fluctuations will begin again.

Perimenopause: Reproductive Mental Health Challenges Continue

Perimenopause marks the next phase, accompanied by irregular periods, hot flashes, dryness in every place possible, and, yes, mood instability all over again. The female body prepares for the transition away from reproduction, resulting in a decline in hormones. 

Unfortunately, traditional health care has little to offer women during this period. Perimenopause can last for years until menopause, which is defined as 12 consecutive months without a period. 

Menopause: Farewell to Pregnancy

Older woman experiencing grief after menopause

Once menopause hits, the reproductive system has done its job. Its performance is over. The curtain goes down on the possibility of becoming pregnant and carrying a child. 

While this may be a logistical relief, there will also often be a period of grief. I often urge people at this stage to seek support from family members and mental health services. The good news is that there are a number of treatments that can help.

Non-Pharmaceutical Treatments for Mother’s Mental Health

Here we’ll cover non-pharmaceutical approaches that can be extremely effective in supporting mental health for mothers with or without health insurance. These practices can be implemented alongside pharmaceutical treatments such as antidepressants or as a preventive measure. 

#1 Reintroducing Self-Care

Mother and daughter engaging in self-care activity together.

Most of us, when we feel pulled in a million directions, spend very little time considering what we might need to feel well. For mothers in particular, it's crucial to reassess habits and prioritize their well-being.

When we neglect self-care and allow ourselves to become depleted, we will have little to offer family members. There is a very good reason that we are told on an airplane to ‘put our own oxygen mask on first before assisting others.’ Your little one does not benefit from having a snuggly fitting oxygen mask only to watch their mama lose consciousness due to lack of air. We cannot pour from an empty vase, and our children do not benefit from our suffering or neglecting our own needs. 

💡 Self-Care Ritual
Make a list of your 5 senses, and list 3-5 things for each sense that bring you nourishment and ease. Now keep that list close by you, maybe in a few places in your house, and put a calendar reminder on your phone three times each day to use something from your list. Taking 30 seconds to look at a soothing image, or a color you love, to listen to a song or a sound that brings you joy–these are small doses of self care that help shift your mindstate by building habits of turning towards yourself.

To refill the tank, we tell our patients to practice small doses of self-care. By investing a small amount of time in this practice, mothers can experience immediate and sustained relief. 

#2 The Three Choices Approach

Let's explore a parenting tool that can help during challenging moments. In periods of frustration and stress, I’ve asked patients to pick one of three choices 1.  be kind, 2.  be polite, or 3. take some space. 

Choice 1: Lean in, engage, and ask questions
Choice 2: Act neutral but respectful
Choice 3: Honor your limited capacity and step away 

This reframe helps mothers navigate overwhelming situations, improve well-being, and can reduce the need for psychopharmaceuticals. 

#3 Stop Complaining, Start Reflecting

Practicing journaling as a form of treatment for mother’s mental health

From a therapeutic perspective, there is a difference between complaining and reflecting. By all means, reflect away! Say it out loud, ponder it, write about it. Reflect on the fatigue, the helpless moments of toddler tantrums, the missed communication with your partner, and your loss of sense of self. 

Complaining, on the other hand, is a waste of energy. It gets you nowhere but deeper into despair. Complaining sounds like, “I never get sleep anymore because my baby is always crying.”

By reframing our mindset and replacing complaining with curiosity, mothers identify opportunities for growth and change. Instead of blaming others, reflection can empower patients to improve their circumstances, without the need for heavier interventions.

Supporting Women’s Mental Health: The Big Picture

First and foremost, prioritizing mental health for women and mothers is critical to ensure their well-being. Additionally, by implementing these non-pharmaceutical treatments and acknowledging the unique challenges faced throughout the reproductive journey, we can strengthen families, empower communities, and build a more compassionate and equitable society.