Perinatal mental health reaches new lows in Canada, advocates push for supports

By Katarina Szulc

The Canadian Perinatal Mental Health Collaborative (CPMHC) is starting a nation-wide walkathon to raise awareness. Since the pandemic began, one in three people now suffer from perinatal related mental illness.

After years of infertility, 44-year-old Flora Babakhani, finally became pregnant last year. However, on Jan. 14, just two months after giving birth to her daughter Amber, Babakhani tragically ended her life due to undiagnosed postpartum psychosis.

According to Jaime Charlebois, Co-founder of CPMHC, perinatal is the time surrounding conception to one year postpartum, and she says although symptoms of deteriorating mental health can present themselves during this period, it is rare pregnant people are cognizant they may be experiencing a perinatal mental health crisis.

“In Canada, we do not have a national strategy that dictates or creates guidance for healthcare providers in regards to how to assess, screen, diagnose, and treat perinatal mental illness. In other countries such as the UK and Australia, they’ve had guidelines for 10 to 20 years and national funding. In Canada, we do not have this.”

Charlebois tells CityNews since there is no due procedure for perinatal mental health in Canada, many people fall through cracks, just like Babakhani did. She says the CPMHC is lobbying to implement actions that would allow pregnant people access to perinatal mental health resources and supports.

“We would like universal screening, and that means every person who is pregnant is screened and asked about in a fulsome way, their mental health history, any current issues, biologically, physiologically and sociologically. And then once issues come up, there are services that they can refer those individuals to.”

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The Co-founder says perinatal mental health not only affects the pregnant person but also the baby. She explains that any anxiety, depression, and psychosis experienced during and shortly after pregnant affects mental and physical development of the child which can cause long-term effects over the course of adolescence and throughout the rest of the child’s life.

“When you have a mental illness and you are trying to parent, it makes every decision difficult. It creates brain fog, it makes you question whether you’re doing things right, whether you’re the right person, questioning whether they even made the right decision to become a parent. It really takes away the joy of parenting. When parents are struggling with their mental health, this directly affects the baby, and it also affects their developmental trajectory once they are born, and throughout childhood and adolescence and into adulthood.”

However, Charlebois says with increased awareness and resources, the rate of the perinatal mental health could significantly decrease, and parents like Babakhani could receive life saving medical help.

Starting this May, in honour of Babakhani and her daughter who has been adopted by her aunt, the CPMHC is starting “Flora’s Walk,” which is taking place in major cities across Canada, coinciding with Maternal Mental Health Day.

“50 per cent of the funds we raise are going back to charitable organizations that support perinatal families within their communities. 20 per cent is going to help Flora’s sister Mimi, raise baby Amber. 20 per cent of our funds are going towards supporting scholarships and training for health care practitioners so they understand what perinatal mental illness is and the effects on families.”

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