Putting Mom’s Mental Health First, The Other 364 Days Of The Year

May 18, 2023

Mother’s Day has passed, and we can’t help but wonder: what happens to moms, especially in regards to their mental health, the other 364 days of the year? We chatted with Harriet Ekperigin, vice-president of mental health at GreenShield, to find out more. —Noa Nichol

Hi Harriet! Please tell us a bit about yourself to start.

My pleasure. I’m Harriet Ekperigin, mother to 12-year-old twins and the Vice President of Mental Health at GreenShield. I’ve been in the mental health sector for over two decades,  and can proudly say I’ve  played a transformative role in advancing mental health services in Canada. Throughout my career, I’ve gained extensive experience researching  how all of us can play a vital role in improving  mental health for ourselves and our peers. As a Senior Lead for Virtual Mental Health at the Ontario Telemedicine Network and Ontario Health, I’ve led the growth of Ontario’s virtual mental health program from a pilot project to Canada’s first province-wide, fully-funded, internet-based cognitive behaviour therapy program – which supported over 120,000 Ontarians during the pandemic. I’m proud of my accomplishments, but would be remiss if I left it there. There’s a myth about women who ‘seem to have it all’. Nothing gives me greater joy than being with my family, and the work I do is both demanding and rewarding, but it’s anything but easy. Finding the right balance is an ongoing challenge, that some days I master better than others. I make a conscious effort to integrate things that bring me joy every day, like starting off the day with a meditation while taking a walk around the block, doing yoga, and spending time with my family.

When we say “maternal mental health,” what do we mean?

The World Health Organization defines maternal mental health as “a state of well-being in which a mother realizes her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her community.” Simply put, it’s how mothers are thriving, mentally and emotionally and the support systems in place to enable her to thrive. We’re seeing more emphasis on the importance of this in our culture, which is an important step in the right direction. But there remains quite a bit of work to do to help mothers prioritize their mental health.

Everybody knows that mothers always put everyone ahead of them and tend to others’ needs and requests more; what are some interesting GreenShield stats you can share with us around that?

To mark Mental Health Awareness Month in May, GreenShield partnered with SAGO, a global research and data firm  to conduct a study of women across Canada gauging how they prioritize their own mental health. The results shed light on the gap in prioritizing ourselves before others, specifically among mothers. In fact, the study revealed that mothers spend 44 per cent more time taking care of others and doing household chores and spend 21 per cent less time on their mental health than women in general.  When it comes to single mothers specifically,  they  spend 38 per cent less time on self-care activities and 18 per cent less time on their mental health than women overall. Costs, location, and navigating finding the right fit with  a therapist based on personal background, are hurdles that keep many women from seeking out therapy. While the data isn’t surprising – moms are notorious for putting the needs of others ahead of their own – it’s interesting to see where that time is going so we can enable them to take some time for themselves.

What are some barriers that keep women from accessing mental-health resources?

While the desire to want to help women toward better mental health is an amazing first step, we have to recognize the core of the issue: many women struggle to prioritize themselves because of systemic barriers. They are usually the default childcare provider, with many forced to leave the workforce due to various reasons like the increase in childcare costs, caregiving responsibilities and the burnout from juggling multiple obligations. And,  for those who continue to work, they are often overworked because they feel the need to prove themselves. As the primary caregiver of the household, women are spending nearly seven times more time taking care of others and on household chores. The limited time for self-care is heightened among women who identify as part of a marginalized and racialized group, who spend 31 per cent less time on self-care activities than their peers. At the very least, women often carry the mental load: planning the birthday parties, writing – and buying – the grocery list, signing the school permission forms, extra-curricular activities, doctors appointments, the list goes on. We need to understand and acknowledge mental health inaccessibility is a systemic issue that requires both individual and collective actions to solve.

What tips do you have for moms, who want to take better care of their own mental health?

As a mom of twins, it’s not always easy to carve out dedicated time to soak in the tub while reading my favourite book. In my practice, and as someone who relates to this deeply, there are easily applied tips that can make a meaningful difference.

  • Start small:  It’s no surprise  many women don’t have an extra hour in their day to fill with self-care and mental health. I encourage women who are feeling overwhelmed to acknowledge that. This is a big step. Once we have insight into the way we are feeling, we can plan to start small in addressing these feelings. I encourage carving out 20 minutes to focus on your self-care needs and build from there. For those mothers that need professional support, you can find a therapist that is willing to meet you for 30 minutes to start if you are not able to start with an hour and then build up the time.
  • Know your worth: Women have been conditioned to believe they need to earn love and attention, often through serving others. Using affirmations and meditations to reframe internal dialogue can be a powerful tool in helping women understand they are worthy just as they are.
  • Find the joy: Women, particularly mothers, often lose sense of what they truly enjoy. Shuffling between working outside the home, a social life, and household tasks like laundry and cooking and comforting and homework and gymnastics and more comforting, many talk openly about losing sight of themselves. Even if they were to have an extra hour to themselves, they wouldn’t know where to start. Sit down and make a wish list of things once enjoyed.

What can family and friends do to support them on their journey toward better mental health?

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Having twins in their preteens, this isn’t wrong. Showing your support to help  a close family or friend that requires support on their journey towards better mental health is a great first step. Here are some ways that I offer support to help mothers in my circle.

  • Time for themselves: Moms would like to do something for themselves. Even if it’s something as simple as going for a walk, to therapy or catching up with a friend, creating a safe space for her to take the time she needs to recharge is important. Can you offer to run an errand for her, or drop off the kids?
  • Providing support: Being a supportive friend is everything. A grand gesture isn’t always the answer – being there to listen without judging and lending a shoulder to lean on adds so much value.

How can GreenShield specifically help moms with their mental health and emotional well-being?

It’s no secret women, especially mothers,  were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. From dealing with job loss to demands in the home as the primary caretaker, their mental health has plummeted over time. Beyond the intensified gender inequalities, women of marginalized and racialized groups were disproportionately impacted, which could have long term and far-reaching consequences. GreenShield Cares recognizes how easy it is for women to put their mental well-being on the back burner and wants to encourage women, especially mothers to start their journey towards betterment slowly but surely.  Our Women’s Mental Health program is offering complimentary mental health services including two free hours of talk therapy sessions, a one-year subscription to online coach-assisted therapy (iCBT), and access to a wellness hub ensuring mothers can find the support that’s right for them. No one can pour from an empty cup, sometimes superheroes need a minute to recharge themselves too.


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