The phenomenon of postnatal depression (PND) is a serious problem not just in Africa, but throughout the world.  However, its ramifications are more severe in some cultural contexts than others.  Here in African society, people often do not understand what is really taking place if one shows signs and symptoms of postnatal depression.  And given the prevalence of girls who fall pregnant at a young age in Africa, it is important to understand the intersection of mental health with the lives of young mothers— particularly teenage mothers.


Maternal depression in the prenatal and postnatal periods predicts poorer growth and higher risk of preterm birth and low birth weight, infant under-nutrition and stunting, and higher rates of diarrheal diseases and poorer cognitive development in children.  Depression during pregnancy may negatively influence social functioning and postnatal mental health of mothers… and when a mother suffers beneath the weight of postnatal depression, it can often create an emotional distance between she and the baby that desperately needs her love for cognitive growth.

But what about the mothers?

Violating the natural order?

The Maternal and Child Health Journal has found that postnatal depression affects twice as many teen mothers than adult mothers.  It is a serious problem that not only affects the victim and offender but society as a whole. Teen mothers in Africa face a lot of challenges, including poverty, premature or forced marriage, poor health systems, shame, and even a lack of support from friends and family.  In such circumstances, girls with fewer opportunities are more likely to experience unwanted pregnancy, and are therefore less inclined or able to parent in a way that creates happy, healthy children.  This unhappiness is passed down to an involuntary mother’s children, and history becomes just that little more likely to repeat itself.  We hear horror stories of mothers who have emotionally or physically abused their children, resenting them their existence even as the child seeks love – and in some harrowing instances, a mother will turn violent enough to kill her child.  We gasp in revulsion that a person could be so capable of destroying a life that depends on them, and we are right to be horrified… but perhaps more thought must be given to the mental health of a mother who, on the balance of options, sees such destructiveness to be the most viable option for herself.  Why is no one taking precautionary measures to reduce the numbers of postnatal depression in young mothers?

Cases of postnatal depression are gripping because they seem to violate an inherent natural law.  A mother in an African community is generally viewed as the nourisher and maternal protector, however the act of killing, dislike, crying, and being depressed by the demands of her own child is considered profoundly disturbing.  In some instances, the public response exacerbates the very emotions it despises.  When we think of a mother who does not feel love for her child, we react with anger and horror; the common reactions to betrayal… and a betrayal is how it feels, since postnatal depression disrupts the presupposed presumption of maternal love and selflessness upon which most societal values rest.  Somehow, this is considered more barbaric and monstrous than when a man beats or kills his wife or children.  Why? Perhaps because violence and aggression is weaved into so much of how society sees masculinity, whereas femininity demands softness, compassion, and nurturing.

Why a woman would murder, abuse or even resent their own flesh and blood is one of the questions constantly asked by criminologists, social workers, police, the general public and psychologists.  Early (or ‘child’) marriages are the chief drivers that cause postnatal depression in teen mothers, and not without reason: How can a girl whose autonomy and faith in humanity was shattered by a forced marriage be expected to do embody a happy homemaker when the criminal justice system doesn’t even recognize her own victimization? A young mother is considered a moral and domestic failure.  When a girl, forced into this role, tries to be a mother and fails, both family and society laugh their lungs out at her expense.  But can a 15-year-old girl be a comparative mother to someone twenty or thirty years older?  The obvious answer is NO.  Yet this is the expectation placed on many girls in Africa who are forced into polygamous marriages at a very young age, and they bear children in pain, in regret of being born, of being a woman and when their mindset can no longer take it, and depression takes control.  No one ever cares.  In most instances, their husbands make the situation even worse.

“You made your bed, now lie in it.”

Economic conditions are a major contributing factor to the postnatal depression within the early days of parenthood for young mothers.  The environment in which the birth occurred and the circumstances surrounding the birth play a massive role in the likelihood of a mother developing major depression after birth.  A particularly traumatic or risky childbirth can, for a mother, lead to severe mental crisis or an inability to emotionally connect with the baby that, for all intents and purposes, risked her life.  And this is particularly pronounced after enduring nine months of anxiety about how effectively one will parent in the face of public shame and stigma for falling pregnant in the first place.

“You made your bed, now lie in it,” is one of the most common remarks teen mothers endure when they fall pregnant, and society is all too quick to remind them of it whenever they show even the slightest angst about tending to the incessant and diverse needs of a new-born.

“Don’t ask dirty questions.”

Poor health systems in Africa contribute heavily to the high figures of teenage pregnancies that, in turn, are correlated with high rates of postnatal depression.  In Africa, there are a lack teenage-friendly clinics that provide non-judgmental education and resources to young adults about sex - and the benefits of having protected sex.  Ignorance is the largest contributor to teenage pregnancy, and in Africa, young adults aged 14-19 years are never subjected to pure sexual education that can actively prevent unwanted pregnancy.

The R word.

The moral complexities around teenage pregnancy could warrant any number of essays on the topic, but it is prudent that we consider the circumstances in which girls fall pregnant.  Not all sex is consensual, and tragically, some girls and women may find themselves pregnant after sexual assault.  The neglect of rape survivors and their rights is certain method of interweaving pregnancy with shame, self-loathing, and mental illness.  Young people who are impregnated through rape have no distance from their experience to process it, and the existence of an unwanted child from an unwanted assault is often so traumatic that the child ceases to become a child at all, but a living trigger of a horrific violation.

Maternal mental health in Africa

Depression remains under-detected and under-treated in most teen mothers during pregnancy, with the potential of the illness persisting well beyond the twelve-month period following birth.  The lack of understanding around postnatal depression is that it’s a new addition to the vocabulary for much of the African community.  Across the continent, thousands of mothers of all ages suffer silently because having different feelings from all mothers is seen as a wicked betrayal of their offspring.  Friends and family will advise mothers suffering from legitimate mental illness to smile, pray more, suck it up, and enjoy the baby… and that’s all they can offer.

Therapy and, in circumstances it is needed, medication are the key to combating and conquering postnatal depression, but this is easier said than done in a Black African context.  In African communities, we don’t do therapy for a number of reasons, including:

  1. We don’t believe in the value of therapy.

  2. We perceive mental illness to mean that a person is “losing their marbles” or mindset; hence sufferers keep it a secret out of shame.

  3. Women are expected to be not only emotionally strong, but superhuman – as hard as a rock encased in a soft body.

  4. If anything goes wrong in a person’s life, it is considered a punishment from God for a sin that they have committed.

In a nutshell, postnatal depression is a gigantic robbery of happy mother-child bonding during first few weeks of a newborn’s life, and though it favors younger, more impoverished and frightened new mothers, it also impacts adult women.  No woman is guaranteed exemption from the risk of postnatal depression, and so it should be combated by all for the benefit of all.

The absence of an accessible maternal mental health service causes a treatment gap for postnatal depression. There is a need to create public awareness about maternal mental health issues, the causes and consequences of postnatal depression, and a creation and promotion of avenues for seeking help.  We can stand together and fight all the contributing factors towards postnatal depression - domestic violence, inequality, poverty, and child marriage - to create healthy environments for new mothers to raise their children safely.  



#Creating-A-Healthy & Safe-Environment-For New-Moms


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