Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative
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As Moms We Need to Start Talking About the Opioid Crisis

Over the last four years the opioid crisis has been gaining speed while claiming 100s of thousands of lives. Across the United States it’s estimated that 116 people die from opioid overdose every day. That’s a lot of people. It’s more than those dying in car accidents or from gun violence.

Moms Need to Talk About Opioids

Moms might wonder what this has to do with them. You also might wonder what this has to do with your mental health. There’s a lot of stigma and misconception that only “other people” use drugs. It’s also really common to think of people who use drugs like opioids, which include things like heroin, Oxycodone, morphine and fentanyl, are weak, immoral or have a character flaw.

The fact is that mental health and substance use are often closely related. Substance use disorder is a complex, chronic health condition. It’s best treated in the same way as something diabetes or heart disease.

Putting Opioids in Perspective

Many of us use drugs and alcohol to cope with feelings of depression and anxiety. We always have and we always will. In the case of the opioid crisis, there are countless women who were initially prescribed an opioid painkiller before, during or after pregnancy to control pain.

These drugs not only manage pain, but they also can provide a euphoric feeling that cuts off anxiety and lifts depressive symptoms. Where these two issues collide, it’s easier to keep talking about pain and managing it than it is mental illness. If your prescription for Oxycodone manages your anxiety, you might think that it’s a totally viable option and continue using it.

There are also moms who have substance use disorder and may have used opioids throughout pregnancy and the postpartum period. These women are still good mothers. Substance use disorder isn’t something that you can just turn on and off like you would a light switch. Giving up a drug with powerfully addictive qualities is incredibly difficult. This isn’t something that you can will your way out of even if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. It isn’t the same as cutting out caffeine, seafood or an occasional glass of wine when pregnant.

The Risks of Opioid Use

Babies born to mothers who are using opioids during pregnancy run the risk of experiencing Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome after birth. There is also increased risk of low birth weight, pre-term birth, cognitive and developmental delays and potential physical abnormalities. The Centers for Disease Control recently released findings that suggest the number of women using opioids during pregnancy has quadrupled over the last 15 years .

Mental illnesses like perinatal depression and anxiety already carry intense stigma and shame. Now imagine adding opioid use in on top of that. For many moms in our community both online and living down the block this is reality. They’re struggling with their mental health and they’re struggling with pain. They’re struggling with opioid use and they feel entirely alone.

Building a Supportive Community

These mothers are our friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors. They’re doing the best they can with the tools and information that they have. Now more than ever we need to open up space for substance use to be part of the conversation about mental health. Instead of pushing these moms further to the margins, we need to open our arms and embrace them. It’s only through our collective ability to love and support one another that we’ll get to the other side of this crisis.

Shannon Hennig is the Program Director of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative.