Recognising the problem
I’ve been procrastinating over writing this post for a while. I’m hoping to publish a series of guest posts on parental mental health, which I’m kicking off with my own contributions. I’ve published my story of anxiety after having my first child, and a guest post on new mums and mental health generally.
But this post – the story of the PND I experienced after my second child – is the most difficult. World Mental Health day is on 10 October and it’s given me a kick up the rear end to share this story. I’m not sharing it to get sympathy, but because of the fact that I doubted myself. I doubted that I was sick enough to get help. I thought I ought to just get over it.
There is a huge problem in our society in which mental illness is not taken as seriously as other types of physical illness, including within the National Health Service. It is well known that there is not enough help for mental illness on the NHS. It is not clear what help is available and much of the help that is available sits at the top of a long waiting list.
On top of this, many still feel that admitting to struggling with mental illness carries a stigma. This is particularly a problem for women suffering with postnatal depression.
“What if they think I’m a bad mother?”
“What if they want to take my baby away?”
“What if the medication means I can’t breastfeed?”
For me, I was not worried about the stigma, nor intimidated by the difficulties of getting help. It was taking myself seriously that was the problem. I didn’t even realise that I needed help.
I was over the moon at the birth of my second son. I had a natural birth – the thing that I’d wished for and had eluded me with my first. I was also happy that with the second child, I felt that my family was complete. I did not enjoy pregnancy and was incredibly happy to know it was finished and I never needed to do it again. And of course, my son was beautiful, as babies always are.
It’s hard to say if there were any number of factors that contributed to my PND. My baby spent time in special care for feeding problems. Some other things happened to friends and family that upset me, and then we had a house guest that came for a week and stayed for a month. My son was born in November, but by the time February rolled around – that darkest month of the year – I was in a dark place.
I spent every day on my sofa crying. I wasn’t even sure what I was crying about. I felt insecure. I didn’t want to leave the house. Also, I felt so incredibly angry. My older son, who was about 3 years old at the time, was having some difficulties getting used to having a baby brother and that was affecting his behaviour. So he was a little more challenging than usual and I was less equipped to deal with it. I used to bite my bottom lip so hard to stop myself from shouting and exploding with anger. It seemed like my bottom lip was permanently stuck under my teeth. I felt guilty for being angry with my son.
It took me a long time to take my feelings seriously. I blamed myself and my own lack of self-control for the feelings of anger. I called myself lazy and weak for not wanting to leave the house. I felt foolish for feeling sad so much of the time. I had everything I wanted, so what excuse did I have to be sad?
I didn’t think there was anything a doctor could do for me. I thought I just needed to grow up and deal with it. Having a baby and a young child is hard work. I thought it was par for the course. And I kept suffering.
And then one day a leaflet dropped through my door. It was for Ieso Digital Health, an NHS service that offers Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) via secure instant messaging on a computer, smartphone or table. It said that you could refer yourself to the service, and it didn’t matter if your symptoms were mild, moderate or severe.
The penny dropped. I realised I desperately wanted to talk to someone about how I was feeling.
So I took the leaflet to my doctor and asked her to refer me to the service. It turns out that was the wrong thing to do, and I could have just signed up online without even going to the doctor. In the end, she referred me to a different service that involved talking on the phone instead of online.
I found CBT difficult in a lot of ways, especially over the phone. I think I would have preferred hiding behind my laptop screen. The idea of CBT is that it helps you examine your patterns of thinking so that you can see how they’re being unhelpful to you, and this can empower you to change them.
In some ways I didn’t like it because I felt like I was being blamed for how I feel. But I made an effort to engage with the therapy, and it did help me channel some of my angry feelings when my son was winding me up. The therapy helped me remember logically that he wasn’t doing it on purpose – he was only a young child – and that I had the power to choose how I reacted to it.
The sad and insecure feelings were more stubborn. They hung around until I ran out of birth control pills and forgot to refill the prescription. Within a week of stopping the pill, I started to feel better. I decided to stop taking them altogether and I’ve felt better ever since. It may have been a coincidence, but recent research is showing that depression can be an adverse effect of hormonal contraceptives.
What I’ve learned
My story exemplifies a number of challenges we have around mental health, and maternal mental health specifically. These include:
- Helping women to take their feelings seriously – to not to be ashamed or afraid to talk about how they’re feeling and to ask for help.
- Taking mental health as seriously as physical health.
- Raising awareness of the symptoms of PND and other maternal mental health problems so that people will be equipped to recognise when there is something wrong – not just in themselves but in their friends and family.
- Increasing the availability of appropriate mental health services on the NHS.
- Increasing awareness of how to get help on the NHS, and the range of services that are already available.
The leaflet that popped through my door saved me. It came at the right moment. But we shouldn’t have to rely on chance for people to receive the help they need.
If you are feeling down, angry or anxious, please speak to someone. The Mental Health Foundation has a useful list of some of your options for getting help. And if you see a friend or relative struggling, please don’t look the other way.