Young mothers: Why maternal mental health matters this International Women’s Day

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is essential we acknowledge the mental health challenges faced by women worldwide, and call for greater support for all women everywhere.

Among the 1 billion people living with a mental illness across the world, a staggering 80% reside in a low or middle-income country (LMIC). 

Almost one in every five women experiences one or more common perinatal mental disorders (CPMDs) during pregnancy or after child birth in low- and middle-income countries. CPMDs encompass prenatal and postpartum depression, anxiety, and somatic disorders, and are the leading complications of pregnancy and childbirth globally. These conditions not only affect the mothers but also have far-reaching implications for the health and well-being of their children.

Young mothers, in particular, are vulnerable to mental health challenges. Not only are they at higher risk of pregnancy-related complications, e.g. miscarriage and stillbirth, but they also face challenging social circumstances including forced marriage, poverty and stigma, making them more vulnerable to mental health problems like depression.

Impact on Children

Maternal mental health affects mothers and children. Studies conducted in LMICs have revealed strong connections between maternal mental health and adverse birth outcomes. Mothers experiencing depression are at a higher risk of giving birth to preterm and low-birthweight babies. The presence of CPMDs in mothers significantly increases the likelihood of stunting and wasting in children –  and children born to mothers with perinatal mental health conditions face a higher risk of suicide and poor cognitive development in adolescence. 

Taking action together

United for Global Mental Health are forging partnerships with like minded organisations to build bridges between grassroots mental health advocates and advocate for better mental health for all. 

One such organisation is the Partnership for Maternal and Newborn Health (PMNCH) who are working with young mothers like Ashley,  to develop evidence-based advocacy to improve maternal, newborn and child health across the world. 

Ashley from Kenya, gave birth at 17 – she had to drop out of school and started braiding people’s hair to make a little money for upkeep. She lost most of her friends and became very isolated. She gave birth to a baby girl at just 30 weeks gestation and her mental health struggled as she adjusted to a new life as a young mum. 

In the next decade, Ashley would like to see more support given to young mothers. “Don’t write off a girl just because she got pregnant early. It is depressing and stressful, but it is not the end of life.”

Ashley Toto, aged 17, from Nairobi, Kenya

Ashley Toto, aged 17, from Nairobi, Kenya

Thanks to Fondation Botnar, Pivotal Ventures, Pinterest, the Adobe Foundation and Lululemon we have been able to facilitate dialogue and knowledge sharing with organisations like PMNCH, to engage adolescent and youth advocates from around the world, to gain their perspective and help inform global-level advocacy on maternal mental health. Last year, working with Fondation Botnar and the Global Fund we organised a side event at Women Deliver focused on the issues of young mothers’ mental health. We also supported PMNCH in their campaign, 1.8 billion, aimed at encouraging the advocacy efforts of young people for their mental health and highlighting the need to take action in support of young people’s mental health.

What needs to be done

Maternal mental health is a fundamental aspect of maternal and child well-being. In LMICs, where resources are often scarce, addressing maternal mental health challenges requires concerted action, collaboration, and sustained commitment. 

There is a critical need for the incorporation of maternal mental health into mainstream health agendas at the national and international level, and for maternal mental health services to be integrated into existing maternal and child healthcare programmes. 

Governments and policymakers must allocate sufficient funding and resources specifically earmarked for maternal mental health initiatives – adequate financing is essential for implementing comprehensive mental health programs and ensuring access to quality care for all women. 

Additionally, efforts to improve women’s education and employment opportunities, as well as initiatives aimed at preventing violence against women, are crucial components of a holistic approach to promoting maternal mental health.

By prioritising maternal mental health, allocating resources effectively, and implementing evidence-based interventions, we can pave the way for brighter and healthier futures for women and children. 

This International Women’s Day, let’s stand with women worldwide, to ensure that no woman is left behind in the journey towards good mental health for all.

Learn more:

Join the Global Mental Health Action here

Read about the Being initiative here

Read about our advocacy for young mother’s mental health during the Conference on Public Health In Africa here