As part of maternal mental health awareness month, I felt it was apt to talk about a few myths about maternal mental illness, or mental illness in general for that matter. As the word suggests, these myths are widely held but are not entirely true. And it is important we work towards dispelling such myths because of the associations tied to them that may even lead to labeling these mothers in a derogatory light.
Such stigma is even more damning when it leads to self-imposed stigma which is “the process by which persons with mental illness accept the negative attitudes of others towards them, then internalise and apply these beliefs to themselves”. According to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), 43.6% of Singaporeans with a mental illness may experience “moderate to high levels of self-stigma”. Studies have also shown that self-imposed stigma has an impact on their quality of life and self-esteem and correlates to poorer outcomes in the form of difficulty securing employment and housing.
Myth #1: Mothers who are mentally ill are a danger to their children
It is not uncommon to see the media sensationalizing mental illness. We see characters with mental illness portrayed to be evil and unpredictable beings that are capable of physical harm of the most gruesome degree, sometimes not even showing mercy to their own family and children. And although we do read in the news about a fragment of people with mental illness who commit violent crimes, the link between mental illness and violent behavior is unsubstantiated.
Regardless fact or fiction, not every mother struggling with a mental health issue ends up hearing or seeing things that egg them on to cause harm to their children. If anything, people with mental illness, mothers included, are more often on the receiving end of violence and other forms of discrimination.
Myth #2: Mothers who are mentally ill cry all the time
According to Ms. Katherine Stone, founder of the blog and non-profit Postpartum Progress, shared that “the term postpartum depression can sometimes do “a disservice” to those women who struggle after having a baby, but don’t reach out for help because they think sadness is the only hallmark of a mental health problem.” As I have previously written in this post, maternal mental illnesses span a wide spectrum. And to assume that symptoms are limited to persistent sadness or crying increases the risk of missing out on warning signs that suggest a mother would benefit from professional help and support.
Myth #3: Mothers who are mentally ill are bad mothers
In a study done by IMH, 50% of respondents said that mental illness is “a sign of personal weakness” and 9 out of 10 people believed that those with a mental illness “could get better if they wanted to”. When conditions pertaining to mental health are seen as a personal defect rather than an actual illness, we encourage a culture of blame on these mothers for not being strong enough to have succumbed to a mental illness or that they should and can easily just snap out of it.
In fact, some mothers may even overcompensate for fear that their condition may hinder their ability to be a good enough mother to their child. And in some ways, my anxiety makes me a better mother. I am careful and sometimes overly cautious so my son won’t be in harm’s way. I constantly think of scenarios where things don’t work out and have back ups perfectly planned out in cases where they truly don’t. I’m constantly paranoid when my son acts out of the ordinary and if I follow my gut to bring him to the doctor, I’m almost always right.
Myth #4: Mothers who are mentally ill cannot recover
Like the flu or a fractured arm, individuals with mental illness are able to recover with the appropriate treatment. Even if the condition does not go away entirely, they are provided with therapy and medication that helps them carry on with daily functioning. However, despite their recovery, most still feel discriminated against by society. In a survey by the National Council of Social Service done on 477 individuals on the road to recovery from mental health issues, “7 in 10 said they had problems living with dignity because of other people’s attitudes and actions” that made them “feel unaccepted by society or unable to contribute meaningfully to it”.
In Singapore, this resonates in cases like this where a mother was told a job position she was being interviewed for was filled immediately after the company found out she was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. This was despite her telling the company that she was in control of her condition and knew what to do should she have a relapse.
On hindsight, reading about these myths may seem obvious. “Of course, I know that mothers who are diagnosed with a mental illness can still be a mother or hold down a job!” But how many times have we also doubted their ability to be a good mother? How many times have we looked over their shoulder more often than employees who are not mentally ill to check if they are doing their job correctly? It is in these subtle thoughts, actions, and lack of trust that we indirectly discriminate against those with mental health issues. And it is important we stop because the basis in which we think and act the way we do are not entirely true.