Maternal mental health: It's not always big smiles and squishy cuddles
When Emily Tredget gave birth to her son, she didn't expect the little bundle of joy would bring post-natal depression, anxiety and stress with it. Maternal mental health wasn't something that she'd learnt a lot about in the antenatal stage, but when hers slipped it really hit her hard. We spoke to Emily about her experiences and how she's using Maternal Mental Health Week and a new app to help bring mums together, reduce loneliness and beat stigma.
For those who don't know, what is Maternal Mental Health Week?
"Maternal Mental Health Week (30 April - 6 May) is all about raising awareness of various mental health issues that mums - and sometimes dads - can struggle with during pregnancy or after birth.
"It encapsulates World Maternal Mental Health Day, which is on 3rd May. I will be kicking the week off with #ShoutieSelfie, an online campaign to raise awareness of and reduce stigma around postnatal depression and other maternal mental health issues."
What mental health problems are women most likely to face during pregnancy?
"I think that mental health issues during pregnancy have only just hit the public eye, really. Most of the focus has been on parental mental health after the birth, but a recent survey by Prof. Louise Howard found that one in four mums struggle during pregnancy.
"Depression and anxiety are the most common during pregnancy. Unfortunately, these often aren't picked up during pregnancy unless a women has struggled with her mental health prior to becoming pregnant."
How about after the birth?
"After, depression and anxiety are again very common. There are also many cases of maternal OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), maternal PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and the more severe psychosis.
"Common symptoms include low mood, fatigue, tearfulness, a lack of joy, becoming more isolated and having flashbacks. Some people develop seemingly strange and uncontrollable actions too, like having to keep the house spotless or becoming obsessive over something."
Is there a reason why these problems occur at this life stage?
"Maternal mental health issues affect one in three women after birth, largely because it's a highly stressful time of life. In many cases, there will have been underlying issues that may not yet have surfaced, but this isn't always the case. A lack of sleep and not having time to look after yourself also don't help. In my case, I struggled suddenly with chronic insomnia. I had six months of getting just one hour of sleep a night.
"I believe that the change in purpose and identity also causes issues. As modern women, we go from being successful and ambitious career women to suddenly being stuck at home with little adult interaction. We're not typically brought up to be mums anymore.
"Lack of support can also be a big issue. Now, people typically don't live close to their family and some may even move away from friends to buy a more suitable family home. This can leave new mums feeling very isolated and lonely at the time in their life when they need the most support."
What happened to your mental health when you were pregnant?
"I struggled with postnatal depression (watch my video about this), postnatal anxiety and PTSD. It changed me from being a confident woman to a nervous wreck. I was too scared to go out much or even to see my closest friends for coffee, and I didn't believe I could look after my son well enough. This led to depression; I believed my family would be better off without me.
"I would panic in the most mundane situations, like in a cafe with mummy-friends or standing in the queue at the supermarket. I'd panic at the thought of being on my own in my living room with my son and nobody else to talk to. It got to the point where my world was getting smaller and smaller."
Did you face any stigma around your mental health?
"Unfortunately, yes. I was told to pull my socks up, which was particularly unhelpful. At a time when I was constantly trying my hardest to struggle through deep depression and anxiety, to be told that it was my fault and that I just needed to get over myself was awful.
"The comments I received probably influenced why I was unwell for so long. They made me beat myself up even more than I already was, and I was ashamed that I wasn't coping. I'd always been able to battle through adversity before, so then to be bashed down instead of supported and loved at the lowest moments was awful."
How did you manage to turn things around?
"I decided to try therapy instead of going down the medication route. It's been scary telling people about my struggles, but in the most part I've been met with support and understanding. I did some crowdfunding last year to help fund a free app called MummyLinks that helps mums beat loneliness. Fundraising forced me to reach out to people, and I remember thinking long and hard before I pressed send on some of the emails.
"I emailed all my past work colleagues and bosses, many of whom didn't know how I'd been struggling. I did wonder if it might stop me being employed by them again in future should I wish to be, but actually it was great. So many of them got back to me with stories of their wives, sisters or friends struggling with similar issues.
"For me, a combination of time, therapy and setting up MummyLinks and #ShoutieSelfie got me here. It gave me a focus outside of myself, plus it meant I could put my awful experiences to good use – creating my own silver lining in helping other mums. Through MummyLinks I'm helping all mums to beat loneliness, as this is a known factor in maternal mental health issues, and through #ShoutieSelfie I'm raising awareness and reducing the stigma. I'm completely open and honest about my experiences because I don't want any mums out there struggling to feel alone like I did. Also, I want to empower those around them to understand and to know how to help."
Do you think we do enough to inform women about their mental health before, during and after pregnancy?
"It's a really difficult balance because you don't want to scare women off! Mental health was hardly on my radar until it hit me. It's wise to be aware, particularly if you or a family member has struggled with mental health previously. I think the best thing is to raise awareness because it naturally reduces the stigma, helps mums to get help quicker and hopefully stops judgement around them."
What would you advise other women to do if they are concerned about their maternal mental health?
"If you think something is up, talk to someone close to you and see what they think. Head to your GP as soon as possible – the quicker you can get help, the easier it typically is to recover. Don't be ashamed; it's not your fault, and you are not alone."
If you want to find out more about what Emily is doing to support mums and to fight maternal mental health stigma,
find her on social media under @MummyLinksApp or visit the MummyLinks app webpage.
If you are concerned about your own mental health or that of someone you know, please seek professional medical advice.