After struggling with postpartum bipolar disorder twice and navigating the health care system to no avail, I decided to stand up and advocate for change.
And so can you.
Here is the story of how the Canadian Perinatal Mental Health Collaborative (CPMHC) came to be and how I and my fellow CPMCH Co-Founder, Jaime Charlebois went from two Barrie moms on a mission to a national collaborative of over 80 committee members and thousands of supporters from coast to coast to coast.
Let’s define perinatal mental health. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of postpartum depression, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
Perinatal refers to the time period from conception to one year after birth. Within this time period, people are susceptible to a multitude of Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs). These include prenatal and postpartum depression, anxiety, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress syndrome and bipolar disorder. On the very rare occasion about 1-2 in 1000, psychosis.
I met Jaime while I was working for HuffPost Canada, working my activism bone by writing articles on the state of perinatal mental health in Canada. I interviewed Jaime because I discovered she was working in the field as a Registered Nurse.
We had an immediate connection.
We both came from a place of lived experience in which we struggled with untreated perinatal mental illness. Conveniently we both lived in the same city, and about 5 kms within each other. After our initial meeting, we started bumping into each other at the grocery store and hanging out at coffee shops talking about why there wasn’t a perinatal advocacy group out there or any Canadian political champions looking to improve perinatal mental health care in Canada. Right away we knew that we could combine our efforts and create something on a larger scale. We formed the CPMHC and invited anyone who wanted to join us to collaborate on what we could do collectively to convince the federal government to enact a national perinatal mental health strategy.
We officially launched the CPMHC on social media in the fall of 2019 during the federal election and we were on cloud nine after getting support right out of the gate from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. In a personal letter to the CPMHC, he pledged his support for a national perinatal mental health strategy. We were ecstatic to so quickly have a federal party leader wanting to help us fulfill our mission. But we soon learned that it wouldn’t be that easy. Although Mr. Singh went on to win a number of seats in the House of Commons, the Liberals won the election, and in any case, we knew we would have to reach across party lines in order to drum up support for a national strategy.
Our work had just begun
We formed a National Committee and recruited savvy social media ambassadors representing all provinces and territories. Today we have over 80 committee members who share our passion going above and beyond time and time again.
We’ve launched several social media campaigns to draw attention to our work. We invited people to submit their story for our #ThisIsMyStory campaign which evolved into an anthology of perinatal mental health stories due to the overwhelming response. The anthology is now available on pre-order at Indigo online and is titled: “You Are Not Alone.” It features chapters from top experts in the field including Karen Kleiman and Dr. Simone Vigod.
For our #NowMoreThanEver campaign, we asked people to send us a video telling us why perinatal mental health mattered now, more than ever in light of the pandemic. We were overwhelmed with the videos we received from moms, dads, politicians, and actors like Juno Rinaldi and Sarah McVee from the hit show Workin’ Moms, and comedian and author, Jessica Holmes. That was our biggest campaign to date and we’d love for you to see the compilation video we put together. Here is the link to the video.
Here are the straight up facts about PMADs:
Twenty per cent of women and 10% of men suffer from perinatal mental illness and rates during the COVID-19 global pandemic have doubled. Black, indigenous, and people of colour, people with disabilities, gender and sexual minority populations experience higher rates of perinatal mental illness. Without routine standardized screening, three-quarters of women are not identified and just 10% of those requiring mental health care receives it. Perhaps more concerning is that even if diagnosed, only 15% of women receive evidence-based treatment.
Unlike the United Kingdom, Australia, and many parts of the United States, Canada does not have a comprehensive national strategy, mandate, or directive to guide how health care practitioners should assess, diagnosis, treat, or provide follow-up to individuals suffering from PMADs. In Canada, one case of untreated PMADs is estimated to exceed $150,000 per mother/child dyad. With screening and treatment, this could be reduced to $5000.
The adverse outcomes, both acute and long-term, of PMADs for parents, their children, and families is well known. Consequences of untreated PMADs can include prolonged maternal depression, paternal depression, partner relationship dissatisfaction and conflict, impaired parental-infant interactions and attachment, risk for impaired cognitive or psychosocial development for the child, and in extreme situations, maternal suicide or infanticide. Programs and policies have not kept up with best practices, research, or the overarching science. Services currently available to those experiencing PMADs in Canada are largely inadequate.
This is a public health crisis.
- Our report, Time For Action: Why Canada Needs A Perinatal Mental Health Strategy Now More Than Ever contains the results of our first-of-its-kind, health provider survey along with 15 recommendations for government on how to improve perinatal mental health care in Canada.
- Our survey found that 95 of health care practitioners believe that perinatal mental health services are insufficient in Canada; and 87% of health care practitioners in Canada do not have mandated screening for perinatal mental illness at their workplace.
- We found that when people are screened and have symptoms indicative of needing intervention: 58% reported wait times of between one to six months and 89% reported that there are issues accessing perinatal mental health treatment
- Sadly, 87% of practitioners believe people from diverse backgrounds encounter barriers to accessing perinatal services. These include language, cultural, and cost barriers and 69% of practitioners reported that COVID-19 has complicated access to care, including reduced in-person visits and overall services.
We reached out to each provincial and territorial government and learned that while some provinces have perinatal mental health questions on their perinatal form or guidelines, it’s not mandatory that health care providers screen pregnant and postpartum people.
Some of our survey respondents told us:
“We need specialized care and specially trained professionals to support and address the illnesses experienced by this population. I feel very frustrated and abandoned when we have no place to turn to for timely and sensitive support.”
“It is past time for a universal perinatal mental health strategy in this country. There are too many people slipping through the cracks and not receiving the treatment they need. This is worsening their condition. Screening must be mandatory across Canada and treatment readily available and accessible.”
Here are our top five recommendations for improved perinatal mental health care in Canada:
Legislation that provides clear guidelines for clinicians through a national perinatal mental health strategy. This needs to prioritize equitable health care across all Canadian jurisdictions.
Targeted perinatal mental health care funding allocated to each province and territory to administer perinatal mental health programs.
Mandated universal perinatal mental health screening at regular intervals. From conception to one year postpartum and beyond. As well as timely access to treatment.
The implementation of a comprehensive perinatal mental health curriculum directly into medical syllabuses (in schools of medicine, nursing, and allied health) and ongoing training for front line health care practitioners.
The investment in culturally sensitive, accessible and patient-oriented treatment solutions.
Here’s how you can help right now:
On May 5th, 2021, World Maternal Mental Health Day, MP Heather McPherson presented a Motion in the House of Commons to support a National Perinatal Mental Health Strategy. Guess what?! all parties unanimously agreed to it!
But… (and there’s a big but)…the Motion isn’t a binding requirement on the government to act. This means that just because they say they support a national strategy, they don’t have to do anything about it. That is until an actual Bill is created and brought forward.
We need to make sure every MP knows that a National Perinatal Mental Health Strategy is important to their constituents (that’s YOU!). We need a Bill to make it happen now! We’ve made it super easy for you to send a letter to your MP.
And if you’d like to join one of our committees, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
Blog Post by: Patricia Tomasi, CPMHC Co-Founder & Communications Director