Pregnancy suicide statistics reveal need for more parental leave and for perinatal and maternal mental health to be a focus of the health sector reforms

Suicide is the leading cause of death during pregnancy and the postnatal period in Aotearoa New Zealand with wahine Māori three times more likely than non-Māori to die this way, a new report reveals in time for perinatal mental health awareness week.

The report Āhurutia Te Rito | It takes a village, published by think tank The Helen Clark Foundation | Mahi a Rongo, calls for change to curb the sobering statistics with recommendations to benefit all parents.

“Up to half of all birthing parents experience symptoms of perinatal distress and this has long-lasting consequences,” report author Holly Walker said.

“This cannot go on.”

The report recommends to the Government a series of transformations to improve the future of maternal mental health including:

– Expanding the provision of public housing and prioritising placements for whānau with young children or expecting new babies

– Increasing funding for midwives and partnering with the sector to develop a strategy to fill urgent vacancies and address long-term skill shortages

– Funding the new Māori Health Authority to commission additional and expanded kaupapa Māori initiatives for whānau wellbeing, with a particular focus on reducing high rates of perinatal distress and maternal suicide among wāhine Māori

– Extending ACC coverage for birth injuries to include mental injuries from birth trauma, expanding affected parents’ access to support during their recovery

– Providing fast access to affordable, culturally appropriate therapeutic support to parents with early signs of distress, and guarantee immediate access to best practice specialist help if they become unwell.

“Suicide is the leading cause of maternal death in Aotearoa, and wāhine Māori are three times more likely than Pākehā to die by suicide during pregnancy or within six weeks of birth – this is unacceptable.

“Having a parent in distress can also cause serious detrimental impacts for babies that can hinder their cognitive, emotional, and physiological development. COVID-19 is potentially making these issues worse and there may also be a cohort of young people who will shortly become parents who are particularly vulnerable to perinatal distress.

“We’ve made a range of recommendations to ensure parental and whānau wellbeing is supported as it’s the best way to protect perinatal mental health and help parents and babies thrive.

“The evidence indicates that support works best when it comes from sources that parents already know and trust, and that community-led and kaupapa Māori driven initiatives can be especially effective. Current supports available in Aotearoa New Zealand are not adequate to meet current needs, and specialist perinatal mental health support in particular is inadequate, uneven, and may be inequitable.

“With the formation of Health New Zealand mid-year, there’s an opportunity to ensure perinatal mental wellbeing is included as a key focus area. This would help break the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage. We urge the Government to take up the challenge and put whānau and babies at the heart of our healthcare system,” Holly Walker said.

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