5 September 2012

South Africa: Depression May Cause Deaths Among New Mothers, Says Expert

Cape Town — High levels of depression may be contributing to the rising death rate among new mothers in South Africa, says a researcher.

The country's maternal mortality rate has grown in recent years, despite the government's commitment to meeting the Millennium Development Goal which aims to cut deaths.

In Hanover Park, a poor suburb of Cape Town with high levels of alcohol, drug abuse and gang activity, more than half of new mothers suffer from maternal depression.

Speaking at the "Towards Carnegie III" conference in Cape Town, Ingrid Meintjes of the Perinatal Mental Health Project at the University of Cape Town, said maternal depression was high in many other poor communities in South Africa.

In Khayelitsha, another high-density poor area in Cape Town, the figure was 39 percent and in Hlabisa, a rural area in Kwazulu-Natal, 47 percent of women suffered from antenatal depression. In Nigeria, the rate was 18 percent.

Meintjes said that women who live in Hanover Park, where more than 60 percent of adults have no income, live in stressful circumstances. These include either experiencing or witnessing personal and community violence (emotional, physical and sexual) as well as poor living conditions. More than a third of women in a maternal mental health project in the area were suicidal.

Poverty increases the risk of mental health and a vicious cycle can develop. In this cycle, poor mental health affects a person's ability to make decisions and to pursue economic opportunities, which in turn can affect physical health and wellbeing.

In settings where women and children face huge developmental challenges, Meinjtes says it makes sense to invest in maternal mental health.

"Integrated maternal mental health services can provide support to increase agency and build resilience," said Meintjes. Most women suffer from common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, and not from more complex conditions.

"Treating mental illness, particularly among women living in poverty, can increase resilience, agency and productivity," said Meintjes. It can also "reduce healthcare expenditure and facilitate the conditions necessary to rise out of poverty".

"Towards Carnegie III: Strategies to Overcome Poverty and Inequality" follows up earlier conferences and research programmes, looking at similar issues in the 1930 and 1980s and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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