When it comes to understanding and preventing suicide, there are a lot of myths floating around. As we go into the holidays, for example, you may hear that suicides are more common around this time (CDC data say that is not true). This kind of misinformation makes it even harder to talk about a question that is already complicated by the fact that the risks and causes of suicide are not the same across all people and groups. In my work, I’ve dedicated time to understanding the risks of maternal suicide so that I can work within local and national communities to be part of the prevention solutions.
Maternal Suicide Awareness Month is observed every September in the United States. The purpose of the month is to bring awareness to the problem of suicide among mothers and to provide resources for those who may be at risk. While it is widely accepted that motherhood can be a joyful and rewarding experience, it is also often stressful and overwhelming. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, up to 20%, that is an estimated 1 in 5 women will experience symptoms of mental illness during pregnancy or in the first year after childbirth. And tragically, suicide is one of the leading causes of death for pregnant women and new mothers. Every year, approximately 700 mothers die by suicide. This represents a significant increase from previous years, and the trend appears to be rising. And while maternal suicide rates are highest among Black women, it’s a problem that impacts women of all races.
In the United States, suicide rates among new and expectant mothers have been increasing for years. Maternal suicide is now the leading cause of death for women during the perinatal period—the time from pregnancy through the first year postpartum. A variety of factors can contribute to maternal mental health problems, including postpartum depression, anxiety, and stress. Addressing these issues is critical, as they can often be the first step in preventing suicide.
Poor postpartum mental health can put women at greater risk, as can experiencing psychosis during pregnancy or postpartum. But one of the most important risk factors is simply being a woman of color. Black women are four times more likely to die by suicide than white women. Studies have shown that Black women are more likely to experience poor mental health after giving birth, due in part to systemic racism and social inequities.
While women of all ages and backgrounds can experience postpartum depression, certain groups are more vulnerable. Pregnancy and the postpartum period are times of great physical and emotional transition, and for some women, these changes can lead to serious mental health problems. Maternal mental health disorders can range from mild to severe, and can profoundly impact a woman’s ability to function in her everyday life. Left untreated, maternal mental health disorders can lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. For example, women who have a history of depression or anxiety, who experienced a traumatic birth, or who lack social support are more likely to develop postpartum depression. In some cases, postpartum depression can lead to psychosis—a break from reality that can include hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to preventing maternal suicide, but there are steps we can all take to support mothers in our community. Maternal suicide is a tragedy that can be prevented with awareness, education, and support. Maternal Suicide Awareness Month is an important time to start these conversations and begin working towards solutions. We need to break the silence around this issue and start talking about the ways we can support new moms. By raising awareness and providing support, we can help save lives.
If you are a mother struggling with mental health issues, please know that you’re not alone and there is help available. Reach out to a therapist, counselor, or support group today. Together, we can make sure that no mother has to suffer in silence. If you know a mother who may be at risk, please reach out and offer your support. And if you are interested in getting involved in Maternal Suicide Awareness Month, please visit Moms Demand Action or Maternal Mental Health NOW to learn more about how you can help make a difference.