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America far outpaces other countries on maternal mortality. A Peoria doctor says there's a lot we could do to prevent them

Many women who are depressed during pregnancy will be depressed after their babies are born.
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The rate of U.S. mothers who die before, during, or soon after their babies are born is more than double that of most other industrialized countries. Of those deaths, 84% are preventable.

That's according to a report last fall from the Centers for Disease Control. Mental health conditions were identified as the number one cause of preventable maternal mortality, with 23% of deaths linked to suicide, substance abuse, or another behavioral health disorder.

"It is very disheartening. And it's even more disheartening in the sense that when you compare the United States with the rest of the industrialized world, we are the worst. And even though the other countries are getting better, we continue to get worse," said Dr. Rahmat Na'Allah, a family physician who specializes in obstetrics and women's health at UnityPoint Health's central Illinois hospitals.

Na'Allah said the disparities are even starker when looking at outcomes among women of color and in rural communities. For her, America's health care system is one of the prime culprits.

"These countries have universal health care. We don't," she said.

Na'Allah said in many states, women can lose insurance coverage two months after their child is born, unless they are eligible for Medicaid.

"This is the most vulnerable part of a woman's life. So by month three, month four, if you have mental health issues, if you're suffering from domestic abuse, if you have issues with substance abuse, there is no care for you," she said. "If you go to the emergency room, you basically have to deal with it. You might not even seek help because you're afraid of the charges that you're going to incur because you don't have healthcare."

The doctor said she believes mothers need to be covered by insurance for maternal issues for up to a year after the birth of their child. She said more than 50% of maternal mortality cases occur in the months immediately following childbirth.

She said it's also important to destigmatize care for these women.

"Some of these women are not coming because they're afraid their children being taken away from them. And so just like we treat diabetes with medications, we should treat mental health and, and substance abuse the same way," she said.

Ultimately, Na'Allah said a healthy mother means a healthy baby. She said she's optimistic the U.S. maternal mortality death rate can be reduced, because so many are preventable.

"This is not a hopeless case. This is something that we can do. And we see countries that can do it," she said.

She cited the Netherlands, where only one woman per 100,000 died for pregnancy-related reasons in 2020, compared to the 24 per 100,000 in the U.S.

"What did the Netherlands do? They have health care for their women. They have support for their women. They have caseworkers for their women. They have lactation support for their women. They do not stigmatize people who suffer from mental health and drug abuse. They do not stigmatize depression or opioid use for their women," she said. "Women are provided support for as long as they need it."

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.