On top of the challenges of caring for a new baby, the state of Utah is raising awareness about the increasing number of mothers who are experiencing mental health issues.

Kristin Arnold, a mother of three, described symptoms of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and bipolar disorder she experienced before, during and after her pregnancy.

“I was not prepared for the onslaught of symptoms,” she said at a news conference Thursday.

Even after reaching out for help, Arnold still struggles with these symptoms from time to time.

Gov. Spencer Cox’s declaration of February 2023 as Utah Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month noted that over half of Utah mothers report experiencing depression or anxiety before, during or after pregnancy.

Depression and anxiety rates in new mothers are increasing every year, according to the Utah Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System.

One in six mothers, the declaration said, suffer from symptoms of depression months after giving birth.

Women of color, according to the declaration, are disproportionately experiencing higher rates of postpartum depression.

“While it’s bad for everybody, it’s worse for women of color when it comes to postpartum depression and anxiety,” Gabriella Archuleta, the director of public policy at YWCA Utah and co-chair of the Maternal Mental Health Policy Committee, told the Deseret News.

In some cases, women from marginalized communities don’t have access to insurance or expensive mental health services, Archuleta said. In others, women of color go to doctors who don’t believe or understand their experience.

Archuleta cited the Utah Health Disparities Profile Maternal Mortality and Morbidity among Utah Minority Women report.

Gabriella Archuleta, Utah Mental Health Policy Committee co-chairperson, speaks with people after a gathering where February was declared Maternal Mental Health Month at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Utah, she said, has one of the highest birth rates in the country at 14.6 live births per 1,000 Utah residents in 2019, according to the report, compared to the 11.4 births per 1,000 residents nationally.

The report indicated that minority women in Utah face a disproportionate burden of health disparities including limited health care access and utilization, delivery method, preterm birth, obesity in pregnancy, gestational diabetes, postpartum depression and substance use.

These issues are important to address, she said, and resources are becoming more available for women of all communities.

For example, last year the U.S. Health and Human Services Department launched a national free Maternal Mental Health hotline.

Moms experiencing maternal depression, anxiety or other mental health problems can call or text the hotline. After being connected with a cultural and trauma-informed counselor, women can begin creating a plan for their mental health. 

The hotline, available in English and Spanish, can be reached at 1-833-9-HELP4MOMS.

There are more resources at the Maternal Mental Health Utah Women and Newborns Quality Collaborative, such as a toolkit that offers information on identifying and treating perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and other educational resources.

Archuleta said to new mothers experiencing mental health issues, “There’s a lot of support out there for you. Put your fear, your shame and your pride aside.”

“I was too scared to say anything,” she said, as she described her own experience.

While working a full-time job, experiencing frightening mental health symptoms and breastfeeding, Archuleta “just kept going.”

Her experience, she said, opened her eyes to the stigma surrounding mental health issues, especially those related to new mothers.

Knowing that things are changing can prevent hopelessness, she said.

“Policies give us hope,” Archuleta said.

Rep. Rosemary Lesser, D-Ogden, speaks at a gathering where February was declared Maternal Mental Health Month at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Archuleta listed bills that are currently going through the Utah Legislature, all of which incorporate changes to Medicare or Medicaid coverage for new mothers.

  • HB84, sponsored by Rep. Rosemary Lesser, D-Ogden, would extend Medicaid coverage through the postpartum process.
  • HB85, another bill Lesser is sponsoring, extends Medicaid coverage to pregnant women with a household income less than or equal to 200% of the federal poverty level.
  • HB287, sponsored by Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, would provide 12 months of postpartum coverage for women who are enrolled in Medicaid, 12-month eligibility for children on Medicaid, and family planning assistance for individuals at or below 250% of federal poverty level.
  • SB133, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, would extend Medicaid coverage through the duration of the postpartum process for women who qualify.
  • HB415, sponsored by Rep. Ashlee Matthews, D-Salt Lake City, would require coverage of doula services by the Public Employees’ Benefit and Insurance Program and requires the program to report that coverage to the Health and Human Services Interim Committee.

Appropriated funding has also been requested by Matthews for a Mobile Maternal Visitation Program, Archuleta said.

“There are seven counties (in Utah) that are maternity care deserts,” Archuleta said, citing a March of Dimes study. This, she explained, means there is no access to hospitals or birth centers offering obstetric care, obstetricians and sometimes even health insurance.

The new maternal visitation program would go into the counties that don’t have access to needed facilities and provide care in the patient’s home.

This is just the start to necessary progress, Archuleta said.

“We need the legislature,” she said, along with community involvement and advocacy. Only then will change be made.

Rep. Rosemary Lesser, D-Ogden, left, and Rep. Ashlee Matthews, D-Salt Lake, attend a gathering where February was declared Maternal Mental Health Month at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. HB84 and HB85, sponsored by Lesser, are bills she believes will benefit new mothers. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News