Stressed young mothers often turn to their community pharmacy for help and advice, especially those pharmacies which offer specialist baby clinics.
But increasingly these baby clinic services are combining with mental health services offered by the pharmacies to help mothers cope with difficult situations.
The extent of the problem is becoming clearer as more research is undertaken.
A study of current evidence on post-partum depression and parenting - reviewed in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry’s January-February edition - found post-partum depression to be a common disorder, affecting 10 to 20 per cent of mothers.
Children cared for by mothers with such depression were at risk of adverse outcomes, with increased rates of psychiatric disorders and developmental problems.
The review found this depression was clearly linked to poorer parenting behaviours, based on the results of 33 studies.
The pressures on a young mother are compounded if she is also working, and a recent La Trobe University study examined how combining work and family commitments affect parents. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2012-13 some 48 per cent of households with children reported that both parents worked.
The lead author of the La Trobe study, Dr Elizabeth Westrupp, said the research focused on the mental health outcomes of parents when they struggled to juggle work and family responsibilities.
“We found it wasn’t a one-way street so that when mothers were juggling family/work roles they were more likely to have mental health problems. But vice versa was also true, so when they had mental health problems they were more likely to struggle in juggling those work/family roles and responsibilities,” Dr Westrupp said.
“What we were surprised at was that these issues were just as strong as for children in primary school as they were in the first years of life.
“That was really interesting because most of the services really are focused on supporting mothers in the early post-partum period.
“We want the community and work places to really think about supporting a parent’s mental health and at the same time recognise the importance of flexible work places and flexible management within workplaces.
“We need to be able to both support parents who might already be struggling with mental health problems but also to help prevent them from occurring.“
“And also to support parents in managing their dual roles which can cause difficulties for many people.”
The pressure on these parents, particularly mothers, is clear when looking at community pharmacies, which offer both child clinics and mental health services.
Penrith High Street Chemmart Pharmacy in NSW is a local hub for young mothers seeking help, and pharmacist Janis Bardsley-Smith is the person most of them talk to.
As a mother, grandmother and specialist pharmacist she is well qualified to help young mothers.
“It’s a hard job being a young mother and we are here to help them,” she said.
“Your children teach you what you need to know in the first week but you have to teach them what you want them to know in the first month.
A lot of it is common sense but young parents get a lot of conflicting advice and this adds to the pressure on them – pressure which can be overwhelming.
“Sometimes our role is simply to clarify these things but just doing that can ease a lot of the mental health pressures on young mums.
“We know mental health issues are growing at a rapid rate and we want to help everyone in our community, not just the young mums we may see.
And there is a seamless crossover between the mental health area and parenting at times.
Mrs Bardsley-Smith said the pharmacy also had developed a program to help young mothers addicted to pain killers.
“Just being able to talk to them and help them get off the pain killers helps their mental health immeasurably,” she said.
“I think the great asset a pharmacist has is making time to talk to people. I am the front-of-shop pharmacist and it’s important when dealing with young mothers facing a stressful mental health situation that you have the right person available to talk to them.
“It’s usually not your male pharmacist because mothers want to be able to relate to someone who may have faced similar situations.
“We also are trained to recognise symptoms and we know when to refer people on for further help. If we see a problem we always refer them when necessary to their doctor or if it is a child-rearing issue we may refer them to a nearby local specialist service.”
Ms Bardsley-Smith said the pharmacy also ran a range of programs which could directly and indirectly help the mental health of young mothers.
“We have a consulting space and offer other programs like weight loss which we find are very useful for helping young mums facing problems.
“And probably most importantly we are just available to sit down and talk. We are also open 24/7 and so we get a lot of young mums contacting us by phone or coming in in the middle of the night as we are the only accessible health professionals available at that hour.
“Customers appreciate it. They get back in contact and thank us when things settle down for them. We have a big discount model that opened up across the road but we are finding our customers appreciate the fact that we take time for them and they are remaining loyal to us.
“I also find some young mothers don’t have family they can turn to and so they know they can ring me at any time.”
Pharmacist Meggie Baldeman of Stud Park Pharmacy at Rowville in Victoria is also seeing the stress that young mothers are increasingly facing.
Ms Baldeman said her approach when helping these women is to keep the discussion informal.
“Our customers often ask for me as I’m a young mum with a three year old and an eight month old so I am able to chat to the customers on their level,” she said.
“Breast feeding is a major issue as it causes a lot of stress and mental health pressure for young mums.
“That is an area I can talk about but I refer them to the maternal health nurse or other specialist if I see a real need for more advice and treatment.
“Lack of sleep is also an issue which causes a lot of stress and also lack of family support adds to mental health issues facing some young mothers.”
Ms Baldeman said adapting to the changes brought about after having a baby often seemed insurmountable for some young mothers.
“After you’ve had a baby it’s a big shock and a lot of young mums don’t feel confident but after we have a chat they feel more reassured and able to do the job,” she said.
“I know a lot of people come back to their pharmacy repeatedly and they ask for me because I speak from experience.
“We just have a quick chat and I find the informal approach is best as they then come back and I ask how they are going and we can keep the relationship going.
“I also address some mothers groups which a lot of mothers find really helpful.”