Former BYU students reflect on maternal mental health

Ashley Max holds her daughter Sophie, born in 2020. Max struggled with her mental health while balancing pregnancy and school work during her final semester of college. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Max)

Mental health difficulties related to pregnancy and postpartum affect 800,000 families each year in the United States, according to research released by the Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance this month.

Two in 5 of the 4.3 million student parents in the United States experience mental health issues which can be debilitating to their health and educational success.

May marks national maternal mental health month and former BYU students reflect on their experience as they confront the struggle of balancing both school and motherhood head-on.

Former BYU student Ashley Max was pregnant with her daughter during her last semester in 2020 and struggled with her mental health while trying to balance school and pregnancy.

Max says she had a difficult pregnancy physically, throwing up for all nine months and with mental struggles also weighing on her. Her motivation to complete school work and attend class rapidly declined, uncharacteristic for Max who graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA and always prioritized school.

“There were days where I was like, ‘I don’t even want to get out of bed,’ because one I was physically drained, but also just mentally drained from work, being pregnant and just kind of everything,” Max said.

Max was also working full time and making sure she had all the credits completed to graduate, on top of being pregnant and preparing for motherhood.

“There was the part of me that really wanted to learn and prepare for having a baby, but also needed to study and do my school work so I could graduate, it was really hard trying to make the time for both,” Max said. “Right before we had her I was really stressed because I got all my school work done but I didn’t really feel like I got to mentally prepare for having a baby.”

For Lauren Whitby, another former BYU student, having a child was an overwhelming and unfamiliar experience, one which lead her to isolation and loneliness. Whitby struggled with postpartum depression following the birth of her son.

Lauren Whitby hugs her baby. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Whitby)

“It’s a shock as a new mom,” Whitby said. “You don’t really know what it’s going to be like to have a new baby.”

Whitby considers herself a perfectionist and struggled with the transition from student to parenthood because of her desire to control every aspect of her life.

“I’ve always fallen into that perfectionist category,” Whitby said. “Not having control of when my son goes to sleep, when he’s watching TV, all these things you worry about as a parent.”

Forty-three percent of student parents also reported feeling stressed all or most of the time in a report released by The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit which conducts research on the mental health of young adults, and Ascend, a policy advocacy program at The Aspen Institute focused on social mobility of families.

“Student parents are superheroes, who go above and beyond to complete their degree and make a better life for their families. They should not have to be superhuman to get their degree,” said vice president of The Aspen Institute Anne Mosle.

More than half of student parents in the United States also said they were made to feel less welcome on campus, according to the report. Student mothers reported feeling “isolated and disconnected.”

“I felt like there were these moms who were just awesome at everything and happy and that there was something wrong with me because I felt a lot of anxiety and loneliness,” Whitby said.

According to the research, having a sense of support and belonging in community is essential for improving mental health of young mothers. For Max, finding this community on campus was hard.

“I’m not a super social person, so I’m not the kind of person that would go up to someone pregnant and be like, ‘Hey, do you want to talk about how this is going for you?'” Max said. “I think it would have been helpful to have people who are in a similar situation. It’s always nice to talk to people who are going through the same thing.”

There are several resources for student parents at BYU including BYU Counseling and Psychological Services and BYU Student Health Center which offer women support during their pregnancy and postpartum struggles.

Max says she didn’t know the resources were available, but admits she didn’t think to seek them out or even had time to.

“It wasn’t on the forefront of my mind,” she said. “Between working full time, school full time and being pregnant and sick, I was just like, ‘I don’t even have time to go see someone.'”

BYU’s Women’s Services and Resources director Dixie Sevison said talking about these issues helps to reduce stigma and helps students to not feel alone in their struggles. 

“When we talk about these issues, students learn two main things, they are not the only ones experiencing this and there are resources available,” Sevison said.

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