With a nod to this week’s Mental Health Awareness Day I wanted to talk about post-natal mental health. Once you’ve had a baby nothing is off limits with regards to bodily functions (I know I talk way more about my pelvic floor to strangers than I ever would have felt comfortable with pre-baby!), but most of us would still put on a show of being happy, even if things weren’t really going as well as we planned. So how do we start talking about it and making it more acceptable to admit we need help? And how do we go about getting that help?
I’m talking about this from experience. After having my daughter I had a form of post-natal depression (PND). Not the kind where I was thinking of harming either of us or where I couldn’t bond with my baby, so not bad in the scheme of things, but where I felt it was more than just the ‘baby blues’. My mood was very low, I cried a lot, got upset easily, got annoyed at her, was constantly exhausted and refused help from my family, as on the outside I gave appearances that I was fine. The reason for it all? My daughter came out of me crying (as all babies do) and pretty much didn’t stop. ‘Babies cry’ everyone said. Yes I know that, but they don’t cry for every waking minute do they? My daughter slept for about 5 hours in every 24 (not consecutively I might add) and for those other 19 hours she was crying. That my friends, is not normal. None of the doctors or midwives noticed that a) my daughter wasn’t quite right and b) that I wasn’t quite right as a result, and this was despite me saying multiple times ‘do you think I have PND?’. It took 3 months of tears (mine) and major lack of sleep (both of us) before I took us off to A&E. They took one look at us and we were immediately admitted for 5 days. They said this was as much for me as it was for her – I obviously looked a wreck! After finding out what was wrong with my daughter, getting the medication to help and giving me some rest time, I was finally put on a list to see a psychologist. I did actually go to a session but by the time I’d got the referral, my daughter was 6 months and her illness had subsided. The very fact that she wasn’t crying so much and was sleeping more, meant that I was getting more sleep myself and to be honest that talking therapy wasn’t really needed by then. It was needed 4/5 months earlier!
This is the first time I’ve written about this and it’s still not something I feel comfortable talking about, even though as I mention, it’s not nearly as bad as some women experience. So I’m here to really encourage you to push it with the midwives/doctors. We get looked after so much in pregnancy, that it feels like we’re just left to fend for ourselves afterwards. Unfortunately post natal care in the UK isn’t what it should be, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get the help you need. What can you do?
* Visit your doctor and ask for blood tests. These can bring up various things that may be triggers to your mood and if you’re lucky, it may be as simple as you lacking in iron or another nutrient
* Go down the antidepressant route which helps balance the mood-altering chemicals in the brain. The NHS website suggests these need to be taken for around 6 months to see the benefits. Not for everyone and I personally didn’t want to go down this route as I thought it might become a crutch and be difficult to come off.
* Request some talk therapy. I got referred to a psychiatrist but it took 3 months to get the appointment, so ask your doctor about talk therapy available in your area as this may be available sooner. In Enfield we have Let’s Talk which offer 121’s and group sessions both on the phone and in person.
* Pandas (pre and post natal depression advice and support) are a charity who have phone and email helplines as well as Facebook closed support groups.
* The NHS also has some advice on self-guided online courses and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) options.
* The NCT have more information on what PND is and the symptoms associated with it, as well as information on where to go for help. They also mention #PNDHour which is an online peer support group that runs every Wednesday at 8pm via the Twitter account @PNDandMe.
I’m not a medical practitioner by any means, and I certainly don’t mean to belittle this illness, but there are a few self-help options you could try while waiting for the professional help:
* Say ‘yes’ to help. I convinced everyone I could do it myself but that just made it harder for me. Let your partner or the grandparents take the baby for an hour or so and just get out of the house and do something for yourself – do some exercise and get those endorphins going, go for a beauty treatment, go shopping – whatever it is that makes you feel like you and not just a mum.
* Try some meditation, mindfulness or practice some yoga. You can do something for as little as 10 mins – just switch off from the outside world and just let your mind go blank. Banish those swirling thoughts.
* Eat well. Easier said than done when you’re juggling a child I know, but try and get a balanced diet where possible. The happy hormone, serotonin is made in your gut, so eating foods lacking in nutrients won’t enable your gut to produce that happiness that gets sent to your brain. Foods for brain health include omega 3 fats (salmon, nuts and seeds), B vitamins (leafy greens, meat, eggs, seafood), vitamin D (sunlight and fortified cereals, breads and milk) and selenium (cod, poultry, walnuts and brazils). Find things that are easy to prep (ready cut veg for example), get people in your family to help out and have healthy snack options available.
* There are things to avoid as well. The caffeine, alcohol, processed food and sugar – they’re all inhibitors in one way or another. Yes they can initially give you the mood altering state you may be after, but then you just crash and burn afterwards.
* Get outside in the fresh air. Cooped up in a house with a baby all day would get to anyone. Sunshine and fresh air are important to keep our energy levels up.
* Talk to a close friend or family member about your feelings. They may well not understand what you’re going through but if they’re worth their weight then they’ll support you and help you through the tough times. Just being able to talk candidly can really help.
* Do a journal. Dr’s generally ask you things like when you first saw symptoms, was there any trigger etc and it’s often difficult to recount this information, so start a daily journal and write in it what you did that day, what your mood was like, what food you ate. It could bring up a pattern that may help you.
You may be reading this while pregnant and thinking that won’t happen to me, I’m happy go lucky and can’t imagine being like this. I really do hope that is the case, but I think we all need to be more aware of our mental health (and others around us) as this illness really doesn’t care who it picks. The more we know about it, the better prepared we are if it does pick us.
I feel like I missed out on something in those first 6 months. I truly love my daughter, but I didn’t get that lovely warm feeling many people talk about having with their newborns. I will openly admit it was a struggle and my advice to anyone feeling even slightly low, is to TALK to someone. Whether that’s a stranger, a partner, friend or a doctor, just get things off your chest. Just remember it’s not a weakness and we can’t control whether we get affected by it or not. We need to get rid of the stigma that come with mental health issues…... talk talk talk.
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