Between life and death: exploring the sociocultural context of antenatal mental distress in rural Ethiopia

Charlotte Hanlon, Rob Whitley, Dawit Wondimagegn, Atalay Alem, Martin Prince

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36 Citations (Scopus)


The high prevalence of antenatal common mental disorders in sub-Saharan Africa compared to high-income countries is poorly understood. This qualitative study explored the sociocultural context of antenatal mental distress in a rural Ethiopian community. Five focus group discussions and 25 in-depth interviews were conducted with purposively sampled community stakeholders. Inductive analysis was used to develop final themes. Worry about forthcoming delivery and fears for the woman's survival were prominent concerns of all participants, but only rarely perceived to be pathological in intensity. Sociocultural practices such as continuing physical labour, dietary restriction, prayer and rituals to protect against supernatural attack were geared towards safe delivery and managing vulnerability. Despite strong cultural norms to celebrate pregnancy, participants emphasised that many pregnancies were unwanted and an additional burden on top of pre-existing economic and marital difficulties. Short birth interval and pregnancy out of wedlock were both seen as shameful and potent sources of mental distress. The notion that pregnancy in traditional societies is uniformly a time of joy and happiness is misplaced. Although antenatal mental distress may be self-limiting for many women, in those with enduring life difficulties, including poverty and abusive relationships, poor maternal mental health may persist.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)385 - 393
Number of pages9
JournalArchives of Women's Mental Health
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2010

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