Maternal suicide: New report calls for more to be done to combat suicide rate among pregnant women and new mothers

Warning this story discusses suicide. 

A new report is calling for more to be done to help combat the rate of suicide among pregnant women and new mothers. 

The report, by the Helen Clark Foundation, is called Āhurutia Te Rito | It takes a village and has been released in time for Perinatal Mental Health Awareness week next week. 

Authored by Holly Walker, who suffered perinatal distress herself, the report says "Every birthing parent, newborn pēpi, and their whānau should be surrounded with aroha and support during the joyful, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming period at the start of a baby’s life."   

It says the perinatal period - from conception to the baby's first birthday - can be a challenging and at times overwhelming experience for parents and the wider whanau. 

A report released last year said suicide was 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. 

Āhurutia Te Rito | It takes a village picks this up calling the statistic "shameful," "unacceptable and preventable"

"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 said no child should start their life bereaved. 

"Our maternal suicide rate is seven times that of the UK, but there are no other statistically significant differences between the two countries in terms of maternal mortality. This suggests there is considerable scope for improved intervention."

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.

"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," Walker said. 

"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," Walker said.


Where to find help and support: 

  • Shine (domestic violence) - 0508 744 633

  • Women's Refuge - 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)

  • Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737

  • What's Up - 0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)

  • Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

  • Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email or online chat

  • Samaritans - 0800 726 666

  • Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757

  • Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

  • Shakti Community Council - 0800 742 584