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“If We Can Screen Pregnant Women For Diabetes, Why Not For Mental Illnesses?”

Trigger warning: Mention of death by suicide

It was 16 October 2017, I was lying in bed with a fever when the phone rang and my mom picked it up.

A few minutes later she came into the room and conveyed the news that still makes me numb. My best friend was gone. It was death by suicide.

The four months before I found out what led up to this moment were a haze. I stopped sleeping, I was plagued by incessant headaches, I lost my vitality – all colour in my life had fallen flat. I was diagnosed with mild atypical depression shortly after – this diagnosis made a world of a difference because now I finally had a name attached to what I was going through.

Representational image.

This experience drove me to research extensively on mental health — my passion was now aided by a purpose. After losing a loved one and having my own lived experience, I wanted to do my part to ensure that no one else, at any stage in their lives, would have to go through what I did.

Research can be like a rabbit hole. The deeper you go, the more you discover. I learned a new word: perinatal.

In my research, I read about how women are more prone to developing mental illness during the perinatal period (pregnancy+2 years postpartum period). The illness during this period could range anywhere from lack of sleep to thoughts of self-harm. This hit home because the idea that a mother could have ill feelings towards her own child went against everything I knew about motherhood.

From the woman who was suicidal and was being pressured to have a baby early to the woman who was too depressed to bond with her newborn – each story I read cemented the fact that these silent struggles needed to be addressed. Hardly anyone was talking about it. Instead of a sitting duck, I decided to speak up.

About 12-22% of women experience maternal mental health issues in their perinatal period. And over 50% of them go undiagnosed. This puts two lives at risk at once – the mother’s, as well as the child’s. The mental health of the mother has a direct impact on the child’s emotional, physical and neurological development.

All this made me think about how society treats pregnant women. Yes, they are showered with attention when it comes to their physical well-being and diet, not to mention so many rituals for their well-being. But then why is mental health so severely neglected?

Representationa image.

If we can screen pregnant women for diabetes and all types of physical illnesses, then why can’t we screen for mental illness too?

Screening women for their mental health is so easily doable during their routine visits to their Obstetrician-Gynecologist (OBG). This will ensure that no one experiencing issues goes undetected and untreated. I even connected with Mental Health Professionals who are experts in the field – Poornima M, a perinatal psychologist, Dr Ashlesha B, a perinatal psychiatrist, and Dr Prabha C, a psychiatrist and President-Elect of the International Association for Women’s Mental Health, who have been guiding me from the onset of this campaign.

Sadly, the stigma about mental health is a huge part of the problem. That is why I believe an institution needs to lead the way here. A private hospital chain could set a positive example through a pilot project that others emulate. However, given the scale of the problem, the solution too must be implemented at scale. The only institution that can do that is the government through its existing networks and agencies.

As I am based in Bengaluru, I thought I would start with my own state. I am asking the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of Karnataka, to:

  • Make a policy to ensure that every health centre in the state conducts mandatory screening of perinatal women, once during pregnancy and once in the postpartum period.
  • Train first responders in pregnancy to screen perinatal women for their mental health
  • Publish the list of health centres where mental health screening is being conducted

When first responders carry out the preliminary screening for their mental health, they can refer the patient to a mental health professional accordingly.

I am not a mother today, but I may be one in the future. I want to ensure that mental health during pregnancy will not be a concern, for myself, or any mother to come.

It was World Mental Health Day yesterday. Join me to #BeatTheBlues and build a more mentally healthy future generation! You can take a look at my petition and decide if you’d like to sign and share it.

How Will This Help, You Wonder?

I just had a telephonic conversation with the Deputy Director of Mental Health in the Health Department of the Karnataka Government. It went well and I should soon be getting a meeting with the Health Commissioner himself. With the media also showing interest in this cause, I believe public support by way of signatures on a digital petition will help me convince the authorities to do the right thing.

Anvita Nair is a 21-year old Mental Health Advocate, a Fellow at the She Creates Change programme by India, and the Founder of Patronus, an initiative to destigmatize and humanize mental health.

PS- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential. Contact social media outlets directly if you are concerned about a friend’s social media updates or dial 911 in an emergency. Learn more on the Lifeline’s website or the Crisis Text Line’s website.

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