A Mother’s Day Story: When Maternal and Mental Health Collide
Posted on May 08, 2019
Sometimes, your personal journey and your professional life cross paths in a way that’s hard to ignore. This week, and this month of May, is a time when the stars happen to collide for me when it comes to health awareness efforts. I want to tell you a little bit about why these issues are so important to me, and why working together to raise awareness and improve our culture and our health delivery system is our shared responsibility.
Let me lay out this “convergence” for you as it’s happening in my world. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The week of April 27-May 3 was maternal mental health awareness week. May 11 is Maternal Health Awareness and Advocacy Day. Not to mention May 12 – Mother’s Day. That’s a lot of serious stuff, and it all happens to be stuff I have a personal and professional connection to. I’ve come to realize that if I don’t share my journey, I am missing the opportunity to reach someone who might need help. So, here’s my story.
Nearly five years ago, on a hot June day in Michigan, I gave birth to full-term, healthy twins – a boy and a girl. These were our first children (and, because I’m still exhausted, remain our only children). I’d had an uneventful and healthy pregnancy. In their 38th week of gestation, the twins were doing well – but my blood pressure started rising. We made an educated decision with my doctors to induce labor. After nearly two days of labor, my daughter got stuck during birth, and both twins ended up arriving via a C-section. All seemed well, and the babies were fine.
But I was not fine.
As the days and weeks went on, I was not healing properly. In fact, my health was deteriorating, and I couldn’t seem to get anyone to listen to my concerns about my symptoms. These are the stories we’re now hearing from women across the country, including superstar athletes like Serena Williams. This was my first exposure to how our society reacts to the birth of a human: correctly, we work like hell to ensure the good health of the baby. Incorrectly, and for too long, we have sent the mother on her way, hoping she attends her six-week follow up appointment and too often, not listened well enough to her concerns.
I was lucky. I knew to push harder for answers, so we caught my infection before there were deadly consequences. But I was still quite damaged, and it took many months for my physical wounds to heal. During this process, I developed multiple mental health challenges: post-partum depression, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
While I’m not a clinician, I consider myself a healthcare professional. I have worked in healthcare for 13 years. I know the system – and yet navigating it, even for me, was full of friction and hurdles. I did, thankfully, have a supportive family by my side, who ensured I got the help I needed. And five years later, I am happy to say that I’m no longer struggling with the depression and PTSD that weighed on me so heavily. But what of those who don’t have such a strong network, or don’t know who to call?
These are the questions that keep me up at night – and why I am so proud to work for an organization that is full of people to ask those same questions every day. At the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, where I’ve worked for nearly 11 years, we are fully engaged – as are our member hospitals – on identifying the best ways to get mothers the care they need after a baby (or if you have my luck, two…) is born. We are working with partner agencies and bringing together clinicians from across the state to do this heavy lifting, and to rebuild our clinical and community cultures to surround mothers, before, during and after birth, with support, resources and care.
We are also laser focused on improving access, coordination and resources for the mental health system in our state. Mental health is physical health – I know this first hand – and it deserves the same attention as the rest of our healthcare system. The MHA and our members are working with the state of Michigan, and other public and private partners, to make it easier for clinicians to find a care setting for someone in a mental health crisis. We are working together to identify ways to incentivize more health professionals to go into behavioral health fields, whether it be addiction treatment, psychology, counseling or otherwise. We are making progress – but we have a long way to go.
My story is not unique. I wish it was – but every day, mothers across the U.S. are having the same experience I did. Every day, people in every community struggle alone because they don’t have access to help from a health professional who can treat and help manage their depression or addiction. We can do better, and it starts with all of us. We must continue to tear down the walls that have created such a stigma for those with mental health conditions. We must continue to tell new moms that they’re not alone in their feelings, and that help is available. And we absolutely must continue to improve how we listen to and care for mothers.
In the years since our twins were born, I’ve gotten so much support and strength from other moms and from the healthcare providers I’ve sought out to help me heal. To all the moms across Michigan, whether you’ve had one baby, or many more, please know that I personally am here to support your health and your journey, and that you’re not alone in your need for support. As a healthcare professional, I – and all of us here at the MHA and at our member hospitals – are learning what it means to get not only babies but moms the care, support and recovery assistance they need to raise happy, healthy children. It takes a team, and we are honored to be part of yours. To all of you, Happy Mother’s Day.
Ruthie Sudderth is senior vice president, public affairs & communications, at the Michigan Health & Hospital Association. You can follow Ruthie for all things healthcare, politics and hockey at @Arkay30 and follow the MHA at @MIHospitalAssoc.
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