Maternal suicide: Attack on Government for ‘shaming’ maternal practices

Kiwi mums suffering from postnatal depression are taking their own lives because they have no one to turn to. First-time mums have described being left alone after traumatic births during lockdown. A powerful public movement in Parliament today aims to bring decades of maternal failures to light. Emma Russell reports.

New Zealanders from across the country are today launching an “attack” on the Government for “shameful” maternal practices killing our mums.

It comes after decades of failed promises by Government to address New Zealand’s “appalling” maternal suicide rates that are five times worse per capita than the United Kingdom.

Felicity Palmer is one mum New Zealand almost lost.

At 16, she was pregnant with her first child trying to finish high school and surrounded by family addicted to meth.

“I felt worthless. I had no one to turn to. My parents were going through a divorce, my friends were slipping away. I just wanted to end it,” Palmer, now 31, told the Herald.

The nationwide Mother’s Matter campaign is protesting against women being kicked out of hospital after giving birth without any support, a postcode lottery for maternal care, lack of wrap around services for struggling mums and cultural and economic barriers for new mums to get help.

Health experts, advocates and mums will speak to 17 MPs including Health Minister Andrew Little and Minister of Women Jan Tinetti.

“Maternal mental health is an issue the Government takes seriously,” Little told the Herald.

Clinical psychologist Jacqui Maguire said women with postnatal depression often experienced low mood, lack of sex drive and a detachment from their baby.

“They might find it difficult to feel compassion or love for their baby and that, in turn, can spark huge feelings of guilt and grief for women,” Maguire said.

She said postnatal depression often went unreported and many women suffered in silence.

“There’s also a huge stigma that becoming a mum should be a beautiful and happy time but the reality is it can be a really difficult … it’s a major time of change.”

Women with a history of mental illness or traumatic births were the most at risk, she said.

Chole Wright, founder of advocacy group Mothers Matter and organiser of the campaign, said it was time New Zealand woke up to shameful maternity practices because “we are losing lives”.

“We are very complacent as New Zealanders and we become almost accepting of all of these deaths. We don’t hear too much about the women, we only hear about the babies who are murdered.”

She said it was a crisis which has been escalated by Covid-19.

“The system relies on people not speaking up and not demanding their rights. We need to inform women of their legal rights and their rights to care,” Wright said.

Fed up by government inaction, Wright partnered with Canadian film-makers Moonlight to show the extent of maternal suicide and postnatal depression in New Zealand.

The three-minute film is being aired for the first time today at Parliament and tomorrow at nzherald.co.nz.

During the last election, National campaigned for a First 1000 Days policy, which was praised by advocates, including Wright, but after National failed to get into power the policy appeared to have been swept under the rug.

It included all expecting mums being entitled to at least $3000 to support their child’s first 1000 days of development, with more funding available to those with high-needs.

It also included a ring-fenced DHB fund to ensure all new mums are given the option of a three-day stay at a postnatal facility after giving birth.

National MP Louise Upston, who led the proposed policy change, said it was under review but the party remained committed to pushing for the mandatory three-day postnatal stay.

Upston said once the proposed policy has been revised it would go in the Members’ Bill ballot which could be drawn in a matter of days or 10 years.

“It’s luck of the draw … or we will consider going to Labour or the Greens for cross-party support,” she said.

New Zealanders speaking at today’s Parliament campaign today include science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman, wellness advocate Gemma McCaw, paediatrician Dr Johan Morreau, mum and advocate Joanne Rama, midwife Tish Tahia and founder of advocacy group Mothers Matter Chole Wright.

Felicity's story:

Felicity Palmer, 31, remembers her toddler knocking on her bedroom door just moments before she planned to end her life.

“I thought to myself, ‘What the f*** am I doing’? At that moment I knew I had to get out. I managed to pick myself up for my kids,” the Auckland mum-of-four said.

“I never told anyone about my suicidal thoughts because of the shame. To me it was embarrassing.

Palmer grew up in the Bay of Islands. Her family were addicted to meth and she felt completely alone.

She got into a bad relationship when she was 16 and fell pregnant with her first child.

“I remember walking down the corridor at school and a teacher stopped me, looked at my belly and said, ‘Maybe you should consider home school.’

“I felt worthless. Like I wasn’t important to anyone. I had no support. I was in a really dark place,” she said.

The solo-mum’s depression got worse after the birth of her second baby a couple of years later.

“I thought I’m not going to get anywhere surrounded by drugs so I packed up my stuff and my children and I left.”

But then she met a guy who was heavily addicted to meth and had just left prison. That’s when she hit rock bottom.

“I saw things I didn’t want to and my suicidal thoughts were the highest they had ever been.”

Despite all her hardship, Palmer continued to fight for her children and went on to study mental health.

“I wanted to understand what I was going through and why.”

Though she still has ups and downs, Palmer wanted to share her story to tell other struggling mums they are not alone.

About maternal suicide in New Zealand:

• Every year at least 10 women are lost to maternal suicide in New Zealand – and experts say that’s the “tip of the iceberg” as many go unreported. Māori and Pacifika are far less likely to report post-natal depression.

• One in seven new mums suffer postnatal depression after giving birth.

• The reported rate of maternal suicide in New Zealand is five times higher per capita than that of the UK, with Māori women overrepresented.

• On average a child dies every five weeks as a result of violence in New Zealand.

Looking for support? It’s available:

Call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Call PlunketLine 24/7 on 0800 933 922

Depression helpline: Freephone 0800 111 757

Healthline: 0800 611 116 (available 24 hours, 7 days a week and free to callers throughout New Zealand, including from a mobile phone)

Lifeline 0800 543 35

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

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