Healthy living

Emotional health in parents with new babies across cultures

The birth of a child is important in all cultures. Different cultures have different ways of preparing for and welcoming a new baby into the community.

It was once thought that emotional problems like postnatal depression did not occur in every culture. However, many research studies have since shown this is not true.

In some languages, there is no word for depression or anxiety. The closest word may be sick or crazy. It is not surprising then that some people don’t seek help to deal with how they feel. For them, the possibility others in their community will see them as crazy could affect them and their family.

In some cultures, feelings of stress or depression are spoken of only in terms of physical symptoms (like headache, stomach ache, tiredness), not as emotional or mental issues. For these reasons it can be hard to get the right treatment needed for recovery.

Aboriginal families

By Aboriginal tradition, babies were seen as ‘born of place’. The time when the mother first felt the baby move inside her, as well as the environment she was in, was very important.

A plant, animal or part of the landscape was thought to be the father and this was related to the spiritual conception of the child.

Traditional birthing places still exist today, but many Aboriginal women now give birth in hospital.

“I became very withdrawn. I cried a lot… [but I didn’t let] what was happening in my life be known to anyone. I thought to myself ‘…I am a powerful black woman because I keep all my business in my house’.” Nyoongar woman

For some Aboriginal women, the first time they go to hospital is when they have their baby. This can add to the distress they may already feel. They may feel very isolated from the social, cultural and spiritual support of family and friends.

It can also be very hard if they have to travel to another city to give birth.

Other factors which may affect the emotions of Aboriginal parents include historical events (such as the stolen generation) and related issues of grief and loss.

A range of resources for Aboriginal women are available from beyondblue (external site).

Migrant and refugee families

People who have moved to Australia from another country often don’t have many friends or family members around to support and help them.

It can be hard to adjust to a new health system, especially while still learning English (or not speaking English at all).

“When you give birth in (my home country) all your neighbours and families come to visit to congratulate you, to share the happiness and to help you. In Australia only my husband and I open the door of the house and celebrate. No one celebrated with us.” Ethiopian woman

Many recent immigrants to Australia also feel upset and distressed if they can’t welcome their baby in the traditional way. Giving birth in a hospital may affect traditional practices and parents may not have many people to celebrate the birth with.

Refugee families may also be affected by trauma that was part of their refugee experience.

A range of resources for people from multicultural backgrounds are available from beyondblue (external site).

Where to get help

  • See your doctor, obstetrician, child health nurse or midwife
  • Talk to a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist
  • Phone the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby Helpline on 1800 882 436
  • Phone the Mental Health Emergency Response Line – Perth metro 1300 55 788 or Peel 1800 676 822
  • Phone Rural Link, an after-hours mental health phone service for rural communities, on 1800 552 002
  • Phone the Post and Antenatal Depression Association helpline on 1300 726 306 (9.30am to 4.30pm Monday to Friday)
  • Phone the Parenting Line on 1800 654 432
  • Visit healthdirect (external site) or call 1800 022 222

Women and Newborn Health Service

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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