What is maternal mental health and why is it important? What do anxiety and depression have to do with giving birth to and parenting a child? Silvia Wetherell answers these questions and provides insight into why they are important as she explains how and why she became focused on maternal mental health.
This past week we had the privilege of speaking with Singapore-based counselor and psychotherapist, Silvia Wetherell. Silvia is one of the leaders in maternal mental health in Singapore, a field which she believes could use a lot more attention. Outside of her practice not only does she do a lot to raise awareness about mental health in general, but also focuses on emphasizing the importance of mental health for new parents.
First and foremost, I was curious about why Silvia decided to become a therapist.
Zach: Can you give us a bit of background on how and why you got into therapy?
I always felt this vocation. But unfortunately it was my third career. First I went to university and I studied tourism and hospitality. I did that in Portugal. Then I studied business in London. I was head of operations for a company there. I was very unfulfilled. I kept feeling this pull to do some sort of therapy. My mother got very sick with cancer. So I thought "life is too short, I need to be doing what I'm meant to be doing." I retrained as a psychotherapist. So I've been counselling since 2009. Initially my goal was to work with teenagers. I now know that's really not my calling at all. I did a lot of grief counselling in England. I still do it now. But as soon as I became pregnant with my daughter in 2010, I just started reading up a lot about postpartum depression, anxiety, and the challenges of motherhood. I was hooked. So I've done a lot of training in this area. I'm trying to specialize as much as I can in this area. I'm Postpartum Support International coordinator for Singapore. I've done specialized training on postpartum depression, mood disorders, and birth trauma. So everything kind of focused on mental health for new parents. That's the main reason why I retrained. I've worked with teenagers. I just wanted to make sure that wasn't my thing, and it's not… I just love working with Moms and babies.
Zach: Working in operations, you must have a lot of experience working with large groups of people?
I was a manager for many many people. When I was in head office, we had over 500 people in this company. When things escalated and people got upset and would start crying, they'd call me. So I was already doing that! That's what I loved doing. So I already had a lot of experience managing people, supervising, and solving issues.
Zach: So you've worked with all sorts of people in all sorts of situations!
Zach: Can you explain exactly what is maternal mental health? And what are the unique services that are offered by someone like you that focuses on it?
When you're working with mothers, ideally you have specialised training because you are providing clinical psychotherapeutic services in terms of treating anxiety, depression, and OCD, but you need to apply it to a new mother. You need to be very empathetic and non-judgemental with new mothers. They are very sensitive. You need to be careful not to be giving unsolicited advice or instruction. For example, someone who just has general training might not see the difference between what is an intrusive thought and what is in the spectrum of common and not to be worried about. But if a woman is coming to a psychotherapist and saying "I had this thought of me throwing my baby out of the window and I'm the worst person, I don't know if I need to be committed to a mental institution..." A general practitioner or therapist might be overly concerned about this and might not take the right action. You really have to be able to understand what's triggering that, what feelings it brings about. Someone that is not trained in this specific field might overreact to that. When you're working with mothers day in and day out, you come to really understand the pressures that these women are under. I think that if you're not working with that demographic, or if you haven't been a mother yourself, it's hard to really understand just how much pressure mothers are under to be the perfect mother: to breastfeed successfully on demand, to do all those things that the books and the blogs say. You need a sensitivity towards these sorts of pressures, and the unhelpful habits mothers can fall into. If you're doing this every day it makes your work so much easier and more effective. All the general skills to treat mood disorders are needed, but you really need to have that particular sensitivity about what is different when working with mothers. For example, treating birth trauma, you need to have specialised training. For example, one of the techniques I use is called EMDR (Eye movement desensitization reprocessing). It is a wonderful way to treat birth trauma. It gives you very fast results. You don't have to use the traditional methods of talking about the trauma over and over again. The woman can become more quickly connected with her baby through this special method.
Another difference between mental health for new parents and therapeutic work and general counseling work is that you can't be giving these mothers lots of worksheets and homework to do in between sessions. They hardly have the time to have a shower in the day. It's not realistic to expect them to do homework between therapy sessions, which you would typically expect from someone. All of these things make a difference. We need more therapists to be trained in maternal mental health so they can be more effective supports to moms. Postpartum support international, 20/20 mom, and some other organizations do offer some training. The US and Australia are doing a really good job of training and promoting more education with specialized training. So I feel like things are changing, but not in all parts of the world for sure.
Our full interview with Silvia also covered tips for new dads, pre-natal mental health care, PTSD from giving birth, and anxiety and depression as a new parent. Follow our blog to hear more from Silvia on these topics, among others.
To consult with Silvia Wetherell in-person or remotely from her Singapore office, contact her directly through her profile.