By Hwaa Irfan
As the global state of mental health continues to worsen as the societal conditions continues to worsen it should be quite apparent to those who have not worked with the mentally ill in a community setting for a long period of time, that there is a direct correlation – in other words environmental factors play a big role.
This has been the case for women since the inception of the male dominated materialistic medical profession, which has a tendency to isolate a problem from the causal factor(s) and place the burden on the individual leading them to believe that there is something specifically wrong with them. This approach becomes evident with the current obsession of identifying every ‘illness’ as a chromosome on the DNA chain.
Honest, unbiased researchers play an important role in shedding light on an issue that has already been understood by many women around the world. Researchers at the University of York, U.K., have been exploring the relationship between genes and the environment and the risk factors of post-natal depression. As a part of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study initiative of York’s Department of Social Policy and Social Work, typically they explored the DNA of over 1,200 mothers. The identified genetic markers linked to depression, 5-HTTLPR and Stin2 were examined, and the compared to data containing information on the mother’s level of education, and history of post natal depression.
Of the women investigated it was found that 17% (less than a quarter) had post natal depression. Those with the above genetic markers were found to be more likely, but not guaranteed to be more sensitive to their environment if that environment was negative. Unfortunately the researcher defined a ‘negative environment’ was determined as being ‘low level education’, but as many aware women know level of education is not what makes an environment negative. When the researchers looked at mothers who did not have those genetic markers they found them to be the same regardless of level of education i.e. rates of depression regardless of the environment though this was interpreted as the environment as not having much impact.
This questions the whole concept of identifying a gene related to depression, as the researchers found that those mothers with the above mentioned genetic markers were less likely to become depressed than other mothers in a ‘positive environment’; however one must note that the definition of a ‘positive environment’ is connected with a higher level of education. In fact, they postulate that a mother with the above genetic markers were better off in positive environment, but worse off in harsher environments.
“The specific findings of this study are very interesting. But the paper is important because of the bigger concept it demonstrates. That is, certain genes may have a positive or negative effect depending on a person’s environment,” said lead author of the research Colter Mitchell of Princeton University.
A Woman’s Perspective
Modern medicine remain very much a male dominated profession that since inception has done very much to shape the perception of the human body like a car with changeable parts, or a computer with replaceable microchips. As a profession shaped and directed by men, it is a little bit difficult for them to understand something they themselves do not experience, which is not helped by women of the profession who contribute to this perception of the human body, more specifically the female human body. Not even Prophet Muhammad (SAW) dared to comment on what women should wear, this role was given to his daughter Fatima Al-Zahraa (RA).
Whereas the rites of passage for men are generally contrived by society, at least in traditional societies, for women, the rites of passage are ongoing, first beginning with the menses. A woman is continually reminded by her body of the life force, and the giving and nurturance of life, But if as Germaine Greer neatly states “… we turn birth from a climatic personal experience into a personal disaster…” there are bound to be consequences. In the sterile environ of modern secular societies, the post-natal mother experiences less warmth in the birthing process, less familiarity, less emotional and practical support in the home, and is more likely to have no one to talk to about the changes her body is going through, and the challenges of a new baby – a new life – a dependent life.
An Indigenous Canadian Tradition
Beverley Hungry Wolf of the Blackfoot Nation, Canada recalls the period of confinement of the new mother:
“She usually stayed with her own mother during this time, away from her husband. No sick person could stay around the home where she was taken care of. She didn’t do any heavy work during those thirty days.
“During the period of confinement the new mother was bathed and given a cleansing ceremony every four days. Her mother would wash her and then cover her up with a blanket. She was made to sit by an altar where incense was made. The incense went up under her blanket and purified her body…
“To bring the mother’s body back into shape, in addition to massages, she was made to wear a ‘belt’ or a girdle of rawhide…”
The tradition of the Blackfoot Nation is just a variation on what was once a common theme, i.e. mothering the mother, which to some extent still exists in some communities. The woman is not only being prepared for motherhood, but she is also being prepared for motherhood and wifehood together. She has the support of her mother, and the elders around her, as well as family and friends.
Instead today a woman is estranged from herself through a series of alienating events from being tagged, labour must happen within the hospitals schedule, the build up of tension contributes to a painful labour beginning with a strangers fingers in areas that were once private, if she is fortunate enough to escape having a lumbar puncture or a complication in delivery that may result in a caesarean birth, the baby is then pulled out like a farmer delivering a calf. The whole experience is traumatic in itself though some women adjust their minds to believing that it is all quite normal disassociating the cause of the depression. Margaret Atwood describes her experience as follows:
“After the first, I didn’t ever want to have another child, it was too much to go through for nothing, they shut you in a hospital, they have the hair off you and tie your hands down, and they don’t let you see, they don’t want you to understand, they want you to believe it’s their power, not yours…”
Obstetrician and gynaecologist Christine Northrup found:
“In my experience, most women don’t have nearly the support that they need during the postpartum time. Many are sleep deprived and exhausted. I remember that after my first child was born, I left the house to go get groceries when she was about four days old. I closed the front door and walked out onto the porch. Then I remembered, ‘Oh God, I can’t just leave. I have a baby.” In a moment of panic, I realized that I had altered y life forever and that there was no going back. We were preparing to move at the time, and each day my husband would come home from work and ask me how much I had gotten done. I told him that it was all I could do just to keep the baby fed, get some rest myself, and prepare meals. I was too exhausted and stressed out to do anything else. On top of that, I couldn’t see to get myself motivated to go into overdrive, as I’d done so effectively for so long in my medical training. But I didn’t understand this, and neither did my husband…”
Yet the situation continues because it is one that works for the medical profession. Meanwhile, mothers continue to feel that “there is something wrong with them” as millions are spent on services which only help to sustain the belief and the condition, the mother’s health/mental health is compromised by drugs for depression, and so is her relationship with herself, her child, and her husband.
Unfortunately it is for women to learn more about their true selves as separate from their perceived self, and then women will be more able to act in their own best interest and in doing so, for other women as well. When a system has taught women to perceive their bodies as being dysfunctional, only women can correct that false perception, and that means being honest as to what disturbs the normal functioning of the female body, and before that learning what is normal.
Greer, G. “Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility.” Pan Books, U.K. 1985
Mitchell, C. et al Role of mother’s genes and environment in postpartum depression. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011; 108 (20): 8189 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1014129108
Northrup, C. “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom.” Bantam Book, U.S. 1998
Wolf, B. H. “The Ways of y Grandmothers.” Quill, New York. 1982.