A few weeks ago when I was still pregnant, my midwife told me not to worry, but she was filling out a “concern and vulnerability form” so I could feel “more supported” during my pregnancy. Of course, at the words “don’t worry” I immediately began to worry, and was half convinced that a van full of Eyes from The Handmaid’s Tale would screech up to my house and cart my older son off to an orphanage somewhere, just because his mum was a bit faulty.
This, it should be noted, did not happen. But, as a result, I am not surprised by the news that a survey has shown how new mothers are keeping their mental health problems under wraps for fear of being labelled “bad mothers”. Postnatal depression affects 10 to 15 per cent of new mothers, but these statistics mean nothing when you’re in the grip of it. Having your mental health scrutinised – or admitting in any way that you’re overwhelmed – can feel like an admission of failure for a new parent. You’ve just been given this tiny new life to raise forever, and telling a bunch of official-seeming people that you’re not really feeling up to it can feel inconceivable.
According to the study, which was published last month in the British Medical Journal of General Practice, women also cited a general unawareness of the symptoms of postnatal depression as another reason for keeping their problems to themselves.
My own diagnosis of postnatal depression, back in 2015 after the birth of my first son, came as a shock
I can relate to this. Sometimes, even though most women will browse a leaflet about postnatal depression at least once during pregnancy, you just don’t know anything is wrong. My own diagnosis of postnatal depression, back in 2015 after the birth of my first son, came as a shock. Although I cried constantly, was terrified of hurting my baby, and convinced I was an awful parent – in the bubble of new motherhood, lack of sleep and hormones – I had just assumed that this was the new normal.
Women in the BMJGP survey also cited unsympathetic medical staff – I don’t think there’s a single new mother who hasn’t heard the dismissive phrase “the main thing is your baby is well” from a health professional – and having to explain the situation to a different member of staff every time as reasons for their reticence.
After you have a baby you’re visited by a parade of different midwives and health visitors – all there for the wellbeing of you and your baby – but opening up to a bunch of strangers about very personal fears or feelings is daunting, to put it mildly.
Ultimately, though, I can attest that it’s worth it. When I was depressed, I didn’t enjoy explaining my symptoms to all those people, but it did end in me getting the help I needed. Now, two weeks postpartum after my second baby – even with another traumatic birth under my belt – I’m feeling well (if tired) and have been cleared of postnatal depression by the perinatal mental health nurse. A lot of this has been down to my vigilance around my own mental health, and having got the right help from the professionals the first time around.
"We know it takes an enormous amount of courage for women to approach their doctor with concerns, so it is vital that when they do they are taken seriously,” said Dr Judy Shakespeare, spokesperson for Perinatal Mental Health for the Royal College of GPs, and co-author of the survey.
"The routine six-week postnatal check, offered to all new mothers after giving birth, is an important opportunity for GPs and new mothers to discuss issues around mental health and wellbeing – and begin to address any resulting concerns.
"But we need these checks to be much longer as standard, so that we are able to give the same attention to the new mother as we do to the baby – but this needs many more resources for our service, many more GPs, and many more practice staff."
Here’s hoping the survey prompts a serious reevaluation of the mental health screenings offered to new mums on the NHS. In the meantime, though, do visit The PANDAS Foundation for more clarity around perinatal mental health issues, or call their helpline on 0843 28 98 401 if you need immediate help.