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The pressure to be perfect keeps many Utah mothers silent about mental health

iStock: Mother in mask with baby
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A 2022 report published in JAMA Psychiatry found that psychological distress during the perinatal period has risen across the country since the onset of the pandemic.

When Kennedi Arlt became pregnant with her first child in the summer of 2019, she was excited. Then, the pandemic hit “and everything just went out the window,” she said.

Between lockdowns and surging case numbers, her mental health deteriorated as she cared for her newborn.

Arlt is one of many mothers who have struggled through the perinatal period, which is during or soon after pregnancy. Between 2017 and 2019, 42.8% of Utah residents who had a recent live birth reported feeling depression or anxiety, according to Utah’s 2021 Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System Report.

Despite the prevalence, Arlt kept silent.

“I was extremely embarrassed that I was so depressed,” she said, “because, especially here in Utah, moms, they're all happy.”

Stigma is rampant in the state, according to Brook Dorff, a public information officer for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, and that stops many mothers from speaking up about their mental health issues.

“Motherhood and parenthood is elevated to being one of the most important things, and it is very important,” she said. “But with that comes a lot of pressure to be the perfect parent or to be somebody who doesn't need help.”

A 2022 report found that psychological distress during the perinatal period has risen across the country since the onset of the pandemic. Issues like the loss of household income, child care facility shutdowns, domestic violence and infections can contribute to high levels of stress.

Perinatal mental health problems can have cascading effects, Dorff said, like preterm birth and difficulty with breastfeeding. It can also lead to family instability and difficulty with parent-child bonding.

“Parents have experienced mental health issues since long before the pandemic. But what the pandemic did was highlight gaps in the system.”

Now, state and national leaders are responding.

Gov. Spencer Cox declared May 2022 Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month. At the same time, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department launched a national, toll-free Maternal Mental Health Hotline. Advocacy groups are also shedding light through events like Climb Out of the Darkness.

This work is critical, said Dorff, because “the more we destigmatize it, the more people are willing to ask for help and go to therapy, get medication.”

For Arlt, speaking up was a key step toward recovery. After she got pregnant a second time, her mental health further deteriorated. She eventually told her doctor, who pointed her to a support group with other mothers who were dealing with similar issues.

“It was amazing,” she said. “I think a lot of it was just knowing that I wasn’t alone.”

Parents who need help can use the Utah Maternal Mental Health Referral Network to connect with medical professionals and support groups.

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