Stepped care for maternal mental health: a case study of the perinatal mental health project in South Africa

Common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression are the third leading causes of disease burden globally for women between 14 and 44 years of age [1]. By 2030, these are expected to rise to first place, ranked above heart disease and road traffic injuries [2]. A recent systematic review reveals that maternal mental disorders are approximately three times more prevalent in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) than in high-income countries (HICs), where the related burden of disease estimates range between 5.2% and 32.9% [3],4. In HICs, maternal suicide is the leading cause of death during the perinatal period, and while there is a relative dearth of information about maternal suicide in LMICs, the estimates are similarly high [5],[6]. Untreated maternal mental illness affects infant and child growth [7] and the quality of child care [8], resulting in compromised child development [4],[9]. Community-based epidemiological studies in South Africa have shown high prevalence rates of depressed mood amongst pregnant and postnatal women. In a low-income, informal settlement outside of Cape Town, 39% of pregnant women screened positive on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) for depressed mood [10] and 34.7% of postnatal women were diagnosed with depression [11]. In a rural area of KwaZulu-Natal province with high HIV prevalence, 47% of women were diagnosed with depression in their third trimester of pregnancy [12].