2013 was a pretty big year for me; not only did I become a mother for the first time, I was also diagnosed with a severe and enduring mental health problem. It was definitely a year of ups and downs, much like my condition, bipolar disorder.
For me, having a child was all about making decisions. As an infertile woman, I was never going to just fall pregnant. I had to make a very informed decision to undertake IVF treatment. Sadly, the reasons for my infertility - two ectopic pregnancies - were also a trigger for a very severe episode of poor mental health that left me suicidal and unable to work for a while.
Everyone will tell you that there is never a good time to have kids but with a few good months under my belt we started our IVF journey and I was very lucky to get pregnant with our first attempt.
Because of my history, I was referred quickly to my local perinatal team and received what I now consider to be the gold standard of care. At that point I had a diagnosis of depression but crisis interventions had mentioned the possibility of bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder. Within my first assessment with the perinatal psychiatrist I had been given a definite diagnosis and care plan, things I may have been waiting for for years if it weren’t for the ‘bump’.
I didn’t become unwell during or after my pregnancy, in fact it did wonders for my mood. I think this was very much down to staying on medication and having a plan in place that made me very aware of keeping well. For example, sleep is so important so we decided that my amazing husband would take some of the night feeds. I had a lot of friends and family around to support me and I continued to see the perinatal team a year after my pregnancy.
This I know is not the case for many women. In my job at the mental health charity Mind I worked with EastEnders on a storyline involving a character Stacey, who like me, had a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder but who became unwell with postpartum psychosis. Researching this subject put me in touch with so many women who had experienced such a terrible start to motherhood. I heard of partners begging with GPs to get help, women having to move miles away because of a lack of mother and baby units, and most importantly, a total lack of diagnosis before, during and after pregnancy. While I had been sitting in my golden bubble with an incredible doctor giving me time and compassion, there were women crying out around the country for help.
Ironically, the work that Mind did with EastEnders is now used to train psychiatrists, many of whom admit they have never seen severe post-natal illness. Watching scenes on the screen that have been informed by the stories and help of real women is the closest many of them will get to being able to observe a women during a psychotic episode.
One in four of us will live with a mental health problem in any given year so it’s not surprising that many women will experience a mental health problem during pregnancy. Having a child is a huge time of change for most women and I know that women are often scared to tell medical professionals about how they are feeling as pregnancy and motherhood is meant to be a wonderful experience. Plus there is such a stigma around being a parent with a mental health problem with people thinking (wrongly) that this makes you a bad parent. Some of the most brilliant mums I know have or have had mental health problems.
In spite of my great experiences I never discussed my mental health with any of my ‘mummy friends’ and did feel uncomfortable visiting the mental health unit with my baby in a pram. I also have felt judged since as a mother when contacted by social services when my mental health has been poor. However, I know that intervention and care can and does save lives.
Mind is part of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, which is calling for all women who experience perinatal mental health problems to receive the care they and their families need, wherever and whenever they need it. After years of chronic underfunding, the Government and NHS have committed an extra £1bn to transform mental health services by 2021 and, as part of this, have promised to increase access to specialist perinatal mental health support, providing treatment for an additional 30,000 women each year.
For more tips about parenting with a mental health problem visit Mind’s website who have a free downloadable guide or call the Mind Infoline on 0300 123 3393 for more information.