Pregnant? See a shrink
The head of the British government’s nursing and midwifery council, Dan Poulter, announced this week that specialist mental-health staff will be stationed at every birthing unit in the UK by 2017. This announcement came as no surprise. Despite the fact that infant mortality rates are now very low in Britain, and the health and life expectancy of children is very high, pregnancy has become a problematical concept in recent years, recast as something uniquely stressful, leaving new mothers vulnerable to mental illness.
If pregnancy is more stressful than it ever has been, it is only because pregnant women are subject to a barrage of instructions nowadays, implying that any action they take may do harm to their fetus and cause irreparable damage to their child in later life. That glass of wine, drinking water out of a plastic bottle, that piece of pate and toast, could all do untold harm. And those mothers who dare to think about themselves for one moment are seen as careless, unfit and selfish. Once a baby is born, the pressure only intensifies as the new mother is exhorted to breastfeed rather than use formula, lest her child suffer terrible consequences.
Still, while pregnant women have definitely been stirred into a state of anxiety by all of this nannying, characterising them as vulnerable and mentally ill takes it to a whole new level.
Being pregnant and having a child is a life-changing event that may be emotionally difficult at times. But classifying the inevitable strain of pregnancy as mental illness only denigrates pregnant women and medicalises an important human experience.
Jane Sandeman is convenor of the Institute of Ideas Parents’ Forum.