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Written by: Kalin Goble, M.S.

From transition cycles across pre-deployment through post-deployment, military families experience unique seasons. Much like the seasons of military life, pregnancy is a process of longevity, lasting from pre-pregnancy well into parenthood.

New parents frequently attend doctor’s appointments. Conversations around which vitamins to take, what to eat, and what lifestyle works best are had in preparation for bringing a new life into existence. Physical health, blood work, labs, and ultrasounds, are a common part of the pregnancy journey.

For those on the journey of parenthood, mental health is just as important as physical. Maternal and paternal depression is prevalent, with 20% of women and 10% of men experiencing depression during the perinatal period (Ward, Tandon, Ammerman, 2022). The perinatal period is the time frame from one year before the birth of a child to up to 2 years after the birth.

When addressing maternal mental health in the context of military culture, it is important for providers to consider:

  • Deployment-related stressors, such as concerns for the safety of their military partner or spouse or the absence of their support during training or deployment
  • Isolation from support networks, such as experiencing a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) to a location away from immediate family and friends

Maternal Mental Health Awareness

May is maternal mental health awareness month. As providers, destigmatizing help-seeking is the center of your work with military families.

Here are some ways to have conversations with mothers – and parents – to support their mental health:

  • Acknowledge the full spectrum of mood disorders: Hormones (and the body) are rapidly changing during pregnancy. “Both women and men can experience perinatal mental illness, which includes a range of disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and psychosis, that occur during pregnancy and the first year postpartum” (CalTrin, n.d.). Just as every client is different, every parent-child relationship (attachment styles, behaviors, routines that work, etc.) is different because every baby is different. Some moms may feel guilt associated with not feeling connected with their child or not being able to breastfeed. Fathers may feel guilt over not being able to help them. Work with clients to normalize all their experiences and inform them of the tools, resources, and options available to them at whatever stage they are at.
  • Identify and discuss shifting relationships, feelings, and needs: Women often feel pressure to take care of the home (and the long list of chores associated with that) and care for the children and family. All while also holding a job. Promoting work-life balance, and the communication of feelings and needs, is vital. Having an open discussion with their partner on how they can use support may lead to improved relationships. Encourage military mothers to prioritize their mental well-being. Prioritizing self-care practices, and creating intentional time out of the day to pause and do something they enjoy for themselves (like yoga, reading, or a quick walk) is important. Even if it is just 5 or 10 minutes. After all, you can’t help someone with their oxygen mask if you don’t first put yours on.
  • Stressing the importance of support systems: Often, when people who care for us ask how they can help, we say, “Thank you, but I got this.” Advocate for clients to be open to asking for and receiving help. For military families, support networks from other moms within the military community can be empowering. It takes a village – peer support programs (on and off base), online groups (especially for military families stationed away from their family/friends), and community can strengthen those navigating motherhood.
  • Screening: Stress and anxiety around motherhood, or the “baby blues,” may present through unexplainable mood changes, experiencing happy feelings, with some low mood, and generally lasts about 2 weeks after delivery. Postpartum Depression (PPD) symptoms may look like feelings of tremendous sadness, hopelessness, loss of interest in life, difficulty concentrating, changes in the ability to sleep, changes in appetite, and symptoms that last more than 2 weeks after birth (NAMI, 2020). Clients may also experience depression associated with fertility issues, or a loss like a miscarriage. Postpartum Support International (PSI) offers recommendations and tools for screening for PPD.

Parental mental health impacts both mothers and the family as a whole. When parents experience depression, children may be more vulnerable to adverse outcomes, “including developmental delays, cognitive impairments, and attachment insecurity, along with increased risk for developing mental health issues” (Ward, Tandon, Ammerman, 2022). Supporting parental mental wellness during this time is an opportunity to establish healthy family dynamics and prevent possible child abuse or neglect.

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Additional Resources

  • Ward E.A., Tandon D., Ammerman R.T. (2022). Parent and Child Mental Health and Home Visiting. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Spiker D, Gaylor E, topic eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development.
  • Zuloaga, A. (2020). Maternal Mental Health. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
  • CaltrinCalifornia Training Institute (CalTrin). (2024). Resources to Support Parent and Caregiver Mental Health. Supporting child abuse prevention in California through professional development and extended learning.