Why social support is crucial to improved maternal, child health

Wednesday January 05 2022
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By Business Daily Africa

Mercy, in her early forties, is a proud mother of two daughters - aged 10 and 12 years respectively.

Despite the strong bond and love that she shares with the girls, Mercy notes that her journey in motherhood has not always been rosy.

She went through a difficult pregnancy with her second child that took a toll on her health, due to family problems that she was dealing with at the time.

"I discovered I was pregnant a few weeks after my husband of five years left me and relocated to another country with a former girlfriend. This was such a low moment in my life and I felt like everything was falling apart," she recalls.

According to Mercy, she felt so alone and isolated from people and the world during that period.

All she wanted to do was to cry and sleep the whole day. But because of the child, she forced herself to eat and work.


Nevertheless, she ended up slipping into depression and delivering her baby prematurely after battling high blood pressure that would not let up throughout the pregnancy.

"Things did not change much after birth and I reached a point where I could not stand any of my children and would let them be handled by the house help who I thank to date, for being really supportive and patient with me," says Mercy.

She eventually got better after receiving treatment for depression and intensive counselling to deal with the pain she had been enduring as a result of the breakdown of her marriage.

Mercy is among the many women who suffer from various challenges during pregnancy that put their lives and that of the unborn child at risk.

Some of these women usually suffer silently and may not therefore get assistance in good time.

To avert these challenges, experts recommend that healthcare partitioners, family, friends and other care givers should pay close attention to pregnant women around them, and offer them social support that can go a long way in improving their well-being.

A new study published in the BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth journal indicates that some women usually lack this kind of support, particularly if they do not have family nearby, are geographically isolated, living alone or without a partner.

According to the researchers, these affected women with low social support are at a higher risk of developing mental health problems ranging from anxiety to depression.

Consequently, the researchers suggest that screening pregnant women to identify those with low levels of social and emotional support, along with the provision of community-based support services, may help improve health outcomes for mothers and babies.

Access to mental healthcare services for both screening and management is a challenge, especially in rural communities due to the limited number of trained specialists such as psychologists and psychiatrist in the country.

Nevertheless, the government is helping fill this gap through community health volunteers who have been trained on tactics for helping communities prevent and tackling common mental health challenges.

Health experts note that such community-based structures can be tapped to boost maternal and child health by identifying and offering social support or assistance to pregnant women burdened by various problems.

The findings of this new study were based on a survey of 493 pregnant women aged between 34 and 39 in Australia.

Asres Bedaso, a lead author of the study from the University of Technology Sydney notes that while pregnancy can be a time of happiness and joy, it can also bring increased stress, especially for women experiencing their first pregnancy.

Some of the symptoms of depression that pregnant women can present with include: low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, loss of appetite, fatigue and poor concentration.

“Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety during pregnancy increase the chance of pregnancy complications and other serious health problems, including postnatal depression and impaired bonding. So, it is important to find ways to tackle these challenges,” he says.

During the study, the researchers examined three different aspects of social support: emotional or informational support (positive and empathetic advice), tangible support (material or financial assistance) and positive social interaction (love and affection).

They found that anxiety symptoms were seven times higher in pregnant women who reported low levels of affectionate support, and there was a fourfold increase in symptoms of depression in women who had low levels of emotional support.

“Understanding the relationship between specific domains of social support and antenatal depression and anxiety can assist policymakers and health professionals in the process of establishing specific community-based social support programs to enhance the well-being of pregnant women,” stated Bedaso.