Warning: This post deals with mental illness and suicide, and may be triggering for some readers.
Perhaps you might suspect blood loss or infection. And those would be a fair guess. Even today, complications such obstetric haemorrhage, embolism and infection still happen and sadly sometimes have fatal results.
But none of those are the leading cause of maternal death in Australia.
After heart disease (which is the leading cause of all Australian deaths), the biggest cause of death in postpartum women is suicide.
You read that correctly. More new mothers die by their own hand, than by any pregnancy- or birth-related complication.
Roughly 840 births take place in Australia each day. About one in five of those new parents – about 170 new parents each day – will be diagnosed with postnatal depression, at a cost to our health care system of almost half a billion dollars each year.
But for some new mothers, the ultimate cost of giving birth will be their own lives.
In a wealthy first world country, where we consider ourselves to have excellent health outcomes for women and babies, the question must be asked:
What are we doing to our mothers?
We know that pregnancy can be a time of uncertainty and change. We know that birth can feel frightening and sometimes the unexpected happens. But do we all know that, as a direct result of childbirth, up to six per cent of women will develop post traumatic stress disorder? That’s up to 50 Australian women each day.
Birth trauma is a real issue affecting a significant number of women. Described as an experience ‘you can’t let alone. It stays with you’, Australian organisation Birthtalk point out, ‘We don’t just leave our feelings about our birth at the hospital. The feelings we bring home about the birth can affect our experience of parenting … These feelings can infiltrate all areas of our lives.’
Watch Jessica Rowe chat about her PND struggle with Mamamia below. Post continues after video…
The experience of childbirth can, for many new mothers, set the foundation for their experience of parenting. Feeling traumatised by birth can make the confusing, conflicted, and often isolating time of learning to look after a needy newborn that much more difficult.
But it’s not just giving birth that can be profoundly disturbing for new mothers.
Australia is currently facing epidemic levels of domestic violence. For a new mother with a young baby, living in an unsafe family situation can provide significant aggravation. As the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) notes, ‘Evidence suggests that … domestic violence often complicate[s] deaths related to psychiatric illness, and in a minority can be the primary cause.’
While it is not possible to accurately measure the true extent of family and sexual violence (due to the majority of incidences going unreported), data shows that this is something with which a significant quantity of Australian women are living. From a current or former partner, 1 in 6 Australian women have experienced physical or sexual violence, and 1 in 4 have experienced emotional abuse.
The AIHW also notes that many maternal suicides occur among women who had an existing history of mental illness. The report states that care must be taken by health services to adequately screen and manage pregnant women’s emotional and psychological health.
From what we know about two singular issues of birth trauma and domestic violence alone, we can see that on a daily basis, a marked portion of women’s emotional and physical safety is compromised.
We need to listen to, and look after, our new mothers – both during and after pregnancy.
Pregnancy, birth and life with a new baby can be a time of immense joy, discovery and love, but it can also be a time of intense vulnerability. Culturally, pregnancy and childbirth in particular are life events often portrayed with a lot of fear and pain, when in fact, pregnancy and birth is more often than not a normal, healthy life event. With the right resources, support and respect, shouldn’t it be possible to more safely nurture new parents through this time?
In a privileged country like Australia, the inherent threats women face simply by existing and reproducing is unacceptable.
If having a baby is supposed to be one of life’s greatest joys – why are our new mothers taking their own lives? That is a question we should all be asking, and an outcome we should be endeavouring to change.
Like I Can Love by Kim Lock is published by Macmillan Australia, RRP $29.99, and is available in all good book stores and online.
Have you struggled with PND? What was your experience like?