“We need services that provide real human connection”: A personal experience of Post-natal depression

Maternal Mental Health Week

This week is Maternal Mental Health Week, and this year it is looking at the Power of Connection. One member of our team shares her experience of Post-natal depression, and hopes for the future of Perinatal Support Services.  

During the multiple lockdowns of the pandemic, our need for social connection, and how to stay connected with one another whilst maintaining physical distance, was tested to the limit.  

Even before the Pandemic, feeling isolated was one of most common struggles for new parents, with 52% reporting feeling lonely in an Action for Children study in 2017 [1]. With the lifeline of toddler groups, play dates and cups of tea stripped away, its unsurprising that rates that of Maternal Mental Health problems have increased [2], and appropriate that the theme of this year’s Maternal Mental Health Week is the Power of Connection.  

“My hope is that this will create earlier intervention pathways before women reach crisis.”

My third child was born in September 2020. After weathering the first lockdown, we were looking forward to reconnecting with friends and family, sharing the joy of our new arrival. But as I started maternity leave, Covid restrictions started to creep back in, and instead of looking forward to welcoming our new addition, we were panicking about finding someone to care for our older children during labour without ‘breaking any rules’.  

My daughter and I both had some health complications in the weeks following her birth but I kept my chin up, my heart set on Boris’s promise that we would ‘have Christmas’. The family would get chance to meet the little one, and we could settle into a new routine in the New Year with the kids back in school.  

How wrong we were.  

It is a strange experience bonding with a new child but at the same time grieving for what you have lost –not being able to share the joy of her arrival with our family and friends in person genuinely felt like a bereavement – a loss of precious connection.  

In the darkness of winter 2021, as the pandemic dragged on, the isolation, exhaustion and seemingly endless lockdown took their toll. Exacerbated by post-natal hormone changes and sleep deprivation, and without the respite of help from friends and family with childcare or the housework, I slipped into serious depression. I began having trouble with cognitive processing, sensory overload and overwhelm. Bombarded by endless news about the pandemic, and with all means of ‘staying connected’ linked to media and social media, things became amplified and distorted, like living in a fishbowl.  

Most parents at some point worry about what would happen to their kids if they fell ill. For me, these worries took on a life of their own. Intrusive thoughts became all encompassing, almost a psychotic obsession. I became terrified of catching Covid and not being able to care for my children. I wanted to hide from the world, avoiding any risk, but at the same time, trapped in my own four walls, I felt like I was suffocating. 

I contacted my GP a couple of times over the winter, but with NHS services at breaking point, a combination of inappropriate referrals, cancelled appointments, and ineffective virtual assessments prevented me getting the help I needed. I felt abandoned, invisible and worthless. Eventually I was referred to the Perinatal Mental Health Service, but still faced a 5-month wait for support.  

At this point, my survival instinct kicked in, and with encouragement from a couple of good friends, I took matters into my own hands. I began attending a peer-led recovery group run by a local church, which brought some focus to my week and anchored me as I started to build my recovery. I could turn up in whatever state I was in, say exactly what I was thinking or feeling, without fear of judgement and knowing it would never be discussed outside the group. Finally, I felt seen and heard.  

“We need face-to-face services that provide real human connection for vulnerable parents who so desperately need it during pregnancy and early parenthood.”

As winter turned to spring, walks with lovely people who listened, didn’t judge and graciously tolerated my spaced-out rambling nonsense enabled me to start to feel connected again, that I hadn’t been abandoned.  

I have been working with the Perinatal Team for the last six months and the support has been amazing. The tools I am learning to use are useful, practical, and the longer-term nature of the support has given me the time and space to process my feelings, fears, experiences, patterns of thinking and trauma. I am hopeful that what I am learning about myself though the process and the tools I now have will leave me much better equipped to manage my mental health in the future.  

Reflecting on my own experience has given me some insight into what support services for new parents need to look like.  

It is brilliant that Perinatal Mental Health support will be a core part of the Family Hubs model in England. My hope is that this will create earlier intervention pathways before women reach crisis. For support to be effective and meaningful, it needs to be regular, face-to-face, not time limited, and with a consistent individual building trust and connection.  

Listening and validating experiences needs to be at the heart of support parents receive, as well as exploring strategies to understand and manage their mental health, and support to build the confidence needed to opportunities for social connection in their communities.  

It is also critical that Baroness Hallett’s Covid Inquiry fully considers the impact the pandemic and the government’s response has had on babies, children, young people and parents, acknowledging the seriousness of Maternal Mental Health and ensuring lessons are learned. Listening needs to be at the heart of this, ensuring those who have felt invisible during the pandemic are acknowledged.   

If my daughter’s first few months had not been spent in lockdown, with all normal social connection stripped away, my experience would have been vastly different. As we ‘Build Back Better’, we need to embrace the good about the power of digital platforms that have played a crucial role during the pandemic. But virtual provision mustn’t become a default. We need face-to-face services that provide real human connection for vulnerable parents who so desperately need it during pregnancy and early parenthood, enable us to identify where people are struggling and put in place the right support when needed. Otherwise, we will continue to see unacceptably high rates of poor Maternal Mental Health and all the risks this poses for parents, infants and families.  

The following organisations provide advice, support and services to those affected by mental health and their friends and families: Maternal Mental Health Alliance, PaNDAS Foundation (Prenatal and Post Natal Depression support), Mind, Rethink Mental Illness, Samaritans, SANE.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis or emergency, you can get immediate support from the NSH Mental Health helpline on 0800 652 2861. Or, if you would like to speak to someone confidentially, call 116 123 to talk to Samaritans, or email: jo@samaritans.org for a reply within 24 hours.

 

[1] rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf (d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net)

[2] Frontiers | Moms Are Not OK: COVID-19 and Maternal Mental Health | Global Women’s Health (frontiersin.org)