Voices: Heather Amstrong’s tragic death should be a call to action

Heather Armstrong  (Instagram / Dooce)
Heather Armstrong (Instagram / Dooce)

Heather Amstrong, a celebrity mommy blogger, influencer and entrepreneur died by suicide on May 9th. She gave hope to mothers around the world by sharing her life story with mirth and candour, writing unabashedly about breast pumps, parenting, housework, sex, her attempts to stay sober and her battle with depression. Crowned "Queen of the Mommy Bloggers" by popular media. Armstrong’s death at 47 is sudden, shocking and saddening.

This tragic incident also highlights the glaring unmet needs of mothers everywhere, exposing alarming gaps in maternal mental healthcare today.

The World Health Organization says one in eight mothers will experience a mental health condition. With 85 million mothers in the USA and over 2 billion worldwide, that means 260 million women – or more – could be affected. Studies suggest that over two in three women with mental health issues are mothers. Mothers with mental health conditions face a gamut of disorders including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and psychosis.

Being a mother is, in many ways, an act of sacrifice. You bear young and nourish them – quite literally from your blood, milk and bones. Then after the complex journey of pregnancy and birth, you nurture them your whole life. But being on call 24/7, 365 days a year is a tremendous ask of anyone. Add a career, looking after the house, cooking and other daily responsibilities, and you have the modern mother’s massive mental burden. It’s a place where “a mother’s work is never done” and there are no true days off.

Some researchers call this the motherhood health penalty; others say it’s the mental load of motherhood. But the evidence is clear: over time, a mother’s psychological well-being tends to drop below women without children.

Poor psychological well-being is often invisible. It’s hard to know if a mom is sad or depressed. But possible symptoms may include appetite changes, sleep disturbances, loss of interest in sex or other anything, tiredness, trouble concentrating, poor grooming, suicidal thoughts, feeling worthless and an overwhelming sadness or bad mood.

Depression isn’t easy to prevent, but there are ways to support parents in your life. Whether you’re a partner, relative or friend, there are actions you can take to help, or areas of her life that you can be mindful of. It shouldn’t need to be said, but sadly it still does: help with housework, childcare and chores. Give her time to catch a breath. Help new mothers in your life get adequate sleep. Experts recommend seven to nine hours a day, and moms need it most. Let her sleep in. Help feed and change the baby. Research suggests some foods may help with mood including fresh fruits and vegetables (bananas are a firm favorite of mine), green tea, fish, olive oil, soybean products and whole grain. Refined carbohydrates, fried foods and white flour products may have the opposite effect. There’s convincing evidence showing physical activity helps reduce depressive symptoms. Support her to move more. Safely, kindly and patiently.

Mental health conditions are often stigmatized or brushed away, but this dismissal is not only unhelpful but potentially dangerous. Instead, show empathy and help mothers seek care. As a doctor, I know all too well how imperative it is for this empathy to extend to healthcare providers. As well as screening mothers for signs of depression, it is important for professionals in my field to be patient, kind and listen to mothers.

It is, of course, not all down to the individuals directly in mothers’ lives. Governments must do better for parents. Everyone deserves to have access to compulsory paid maternal leave of four months or more, paternal leave, childcare subsidies and guaranteed health coverage.

Heather Amstrong’s legacy of generosity lives on, even though she is gone. The lingering challenge is supporting the 260 million or more mothers living with mental health conditions today. Working together, we can help protect their mental health, reduce the load and get them care. We don’t want mothers left isolated and overwhelmed. We want them happy, healthy and fulfilled. Let’s show up and make it happen.