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Psychological assistance for parents in emotional distress

Prof. Dr. Malek Bajbouj

Prof. Dr. Malek Bajbouj
Image Credit: Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin

Up to 15 percent of mothers suffer from postnatal depression after the birth of their baby. If left untreated, this can have serious consequences for the mother-child relationship. In Berlin, parents can find help at the Charité, where a parent-child unit cares for fathers and mothers in psychological distress.
The collaborative BUA project “PRODIGY – Practices of Development and International Cooperation with a focus on Global Health Engagement” is dedicated to this topic as a flagship project of the Berlin Center for Global Engagement (BCGE). The participants are working on a knowledge exchange platform that involves patients and participants from healthcare. The focus is on the exchange with international partners in Jordan, Vietnam and Ukraine.

The project manager at the Charité is Malek Bajbouj, Professor of Psychiatry and Affective Neuroscience and Head of the Parent-Child Unit.

Many laypersons are familiar with the term “baby blues”. Is that comparable with postnatal depression?

Malek Bajbouj: “Baby blues” indicates a feeling of dejection limited to a short period of time, which affects approximately one third of all young mothers immediately after birth and in the first weeks afterwards. The reason is usually the hormonal changes after pregnancy, which can lead to mood swings. Postnatal depression, on the other hand, lasts longer and also often begins later on, has a more serious impact and therefore requires treatment.

Are men also affected by postnatal depression?

Bajbouj: Yes, but only half as often as women. The triggers for them are usually the changed life circumstances that accompany the birth. Even if they are not affected by depression, the fathers are an important factor in the therapy: as a mental resource, but also as a stress factor for their partners. That is why we deliberately call our ward the “Parent-Child Unit”.

How did the cooperation with the universities and hospitals in Jordan, Vietnam and Ukraine come about?

We network professionally with each other via international conferences and other channels. When exchanging views, we established that services for mothers with postnatal depression are thin on the ground in all four countries. However, due to cultural reasons, the way society deals with the topic is different in each country. While in Germany, for example, affected parents frequently refrain from having further children because of concerns about being affected by depression again, the focus in Jordan is rather on the question of what can be done so that the women can have further children in any case. In Vietnam, on the other hand, the social pressure from the community is huge. The dominant idea there is that a mother loses face if she admits to needing help.

Are you working on common standards for support services?

That is our goal in quality assurance in research and therapeutic care. It is not, however, about achieving similar facilities in the support services in all countries. Because although in Germany psychological care is generally firmly in the hands of highly specialised, usually academically trained experts, nursing staff or laypersons frequently also care for people with mental health problems in Vietnam or Jordan. This means that there are many different points of contact.

How do the project partners benefit from the knowledge of the others?

The low-threshold services mentioned are also interesting for Germany. The downside of specialised expertise is that the services are significantly more limited and access is therefore more difficult. Furthermore, through the cooperation, we obtain important knowledge on interaction with families from other cultures for the work in our Parent-Child Unit. From our partner hospitals in Ukraine, on the other hand, we received very good proposals for the use of chatbots in psychological initial consultations.

Further Information

The project:

PRODIGY has been supported with BUA funds since 2023 and will be for a total of three years. The project spokespersons on the BUA side are: Prof. Dr. Malek Bajbouj (Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin), Prof. Daniel Strech (Berlin Institute of Health), Prof. Michael Zürn (Freie Universität) and Prof. Isabel Dziobek (Humboldt-Universität). The university partners in Vietnam and Jordan are the Jordan University Hospital in Amman and the Hanoi Medical University.

Malek Bajbouj is Director of International Affairs at the Charité and Managing Senior Physician at the Department of Psychiatry and Neurosciences.