LOCKDOWN & MENTAL HEALTH

Using the internet to reach vulnerable mothers

By Karabo Mafolo 8 May 2020

After a nine-year wait, the Justices of the Constitutional Court have finally given maternal health rights a place in Uganda’s constitution. (Photo: Unsplash / Zach Vessels)

The lockdown has meant that many pregnant and postnatal women lose their support networks. An online resource has been created for pregnant and postnatal women in low-income communities to help them take care of themselves and their babies.

A number of resources have been made available to assist people with their mental health, but what often falls through the cracks is the mental health of pregnant and postnatal women. Messages for Mothers (M4M) was created to bridge that gap. 

Lockdown has restricted many people’s movements which has led to the Perinatal Mental Health Project (PMHP), finding ways to continue to assist pregnant and postnatal women. 

At the start of lockdown, there was confusion and anxiety among postnatal and pregnant mothers as a number of outlets were not selling nappies and baby clothes.

The uncertainty and swift change in how we live because of the pandemic could result in even more anxiety among pregnant women. 

“One in three women have depression and/or anxiety, and we think that this is in large part due to multiple colliding factors which include HIV, domestic violence, not just intimate partner violence, but violence from other people in the home, and food insecurity,” said Simone Honikman, the founder and director of the project.

Honikman founded the project in 2002 “in response to the significant unmet need for maternal mental health within an overstretched public healthcare system”.

“Our mission is to ensure that mental health is integrated into all platforms that are providing some kind of engagement with mothers, whether it be the health services, social services or people in the civil society. We want mental health to be on the agenda and to be everyone’s business,” said Honikman. 

In collaboration with other organisations that work with mothers such as Embrace, Flourish, Grow Great and Side by Side, M4M was born. 

The website has resources for mental health, physical health and parenting during a pandemic.

PMHP’s clinical services co-ordinator, Liesl Hermanus, has in-person sessions only with clients who are “very vulnerable”. 

These sessions happen in Hanover Park. Clients are screened for Covid-19 before they can see Hermanus. 

PMHP usually has 200 clients a year. Hermanus  is presently providing mental health support to between four and 11 clients a day.

Hermanus conducts all her sessions in personal protective gear and clients are required to wear masks and adhere to physical distancing.

Clients Hermanus sees aren’t just from Hanover Park — some are from Gugulethu and Manenberg, communities which have many low-income households. Lockdown has placed them in a precarious situation with many left without employment and food.

The pandemic has also meant that Hermanus has had an increase in clients requesting food.

The biggest adjustments Hermanus has had to make is “finding organisations that provide food because that’s not what we do”.

“We don’t provide food, but when a mother sends you a message saying ‘there’s no food’, you want to help,” Hermanus told Daily Maverick.

Food insecurity was an issue before lockdown, but it is now amplified because of the lockdown, said Hermanus. 

It’s important to help clients get food because “food insecurity is also a big contributor to mental health [issues]”, said Hermanus.

Despite the distribution of food parcels from the Department of Social Development, many people still don’t get them, said Hermanus. 

To make the M4M website accessible to non-English speakers, the resources are available in isiXhosa, isiZulu and Afrikaans.

According to the 2017 General Household Survey, at least 40% of South Africans do not have access to the internet, which means M4M is not reaching everyone. 

Honikman says they are working to get the website zero-rated. 

In the meantime, their messages are being distributed via radio. 

The Broadcast Research Council estimates that about 38 million people in South Africa listen to the radio.

Although using radio is an effective way to get messaging to pregnant and postnatal women, PMHP doesn’t always have the money to pay radio stations to air their messaging.

PMHP is a non-profit organisation, “so we’re trying to look for funding for that to happen,” Honikman told Daily Maverick

But PMHP has made some progress in other aspects.

“A huge win is that the national WhatsApp line [for information on Covid-19] has added a section on maternal health. We’re hoping that they can add [more on maternal health] on the zero-rated Corona website,” said Honikman. DM

Click here if you’d like to donate to the Perinatal Mental Health Project.

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