Postnatal Depression – does the public understand the reality of perinatal (from conception to 24 months after birth), mental illness and the long term effects on the entire family? The antenatal education class I participate in suggests not. Even amongst an invested audience, the lack of knowledge and understanding of perinatal mental illness, causes me great sadness and fuels my desire to make broad changes.
Emotional Preparation for Parenthood, educates expecting parents about perinatal mental illness, signs and symptoms, how to support sufferers and get help, and the importance of early intervention. These classes occur in only one birthing hospital across Brisbane reaching approximately 180 parents per year. The remaining parents of the 60,000 births across Queensland every year, remain mostly unaware and underprepared for the mental illnesses they may experience.
This fact has driven me crazy for years now. Once I learned that the incidence of depression goes from 10% antenatally to 16% postnatally, I was confused and angry. Why aren’t we told of this medical risk factor of pregnancy? Imagine the outrage if we were not educated about gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, genetic defects or mastitis. Why is mental illness different? It’s not!
My anger comes from a very personal place. I was one of those 16% of women. I knew nothing about postnatal depression except that it existed. I was completely unprepared for what happened, as was my husband and family.
I plummeted the moment my second child was born (9 years ago). The moment I delivered her, I thought “please don’t give me that baby. I don’t want it.” I wanted to fall through the floor to the centre of the earth and be covered in rocks and blankets. I didn’t want to talk to or be with anyone. Instead, the baby was given to me and I did what was expected of me – I fed her. I hated it. I already began to feel resentful.
These feelings continued to grow stronger. At 2 weeks, I said to my sister, “Something’s not right”. I didn’t know what it was and nor did she, so nothing was done. Every time my baby cried or my toddler needed me, I felt anger. I would pick her up and glare at her like she was the devil. The truth is, I had repeated thoughts of wanting to throw her out the window or across the room and into the wall. I spent hours crying in a ball on my bed, or rocking and crying in the feeding chair ignoring my children. In those times, the only thought in my head was – “I want to go away and never come back. I don’t want to do this, I can’t do this.” It reached a point where on some level I knew I was becoming a danger to my children, yet I said nothing. How could I own up to these horrific thoughts? How can I tell my husband I was feeling this way? What a failure of a mother I am. I was so ashamed.
I was completely incapable of feeling any happiness or joy in any part of my life. I wanted to disappear. I was sure everyone would be better off without me.
This went on for 7 weeks when thankfully my obstetrician realised something was wrong. After 6 weeks of treatment, when my baby was 3 months old, I looked at her and thought “maybe you’re not so bad after all”.
When she was 6 months old the truth was finally revealed. I was no longer controlled by the black beast of depression and the real me was slowly being uncovered. I looked at my beautiful daughter Charlotte and felt the most incredible feeling of love. It literally flowed between us. We were finally connected. I could see the real her and she could see the real me for the first time. It was such a relief to realise that I had always loved her – I was just too sick to experience it.
Six months it took. No child deserves this. She has since been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, ADHD, obsessional and catastrophic thinking and a visual processing disorder, all conditions linked to children of parents with a mental illness. My older daughter also suffers an anxiety disorder, and undoubtedly these conditions are linked to my illness.
It shouldn’t have been this way. My depression should have been detected and treated antenatally, therefore reducing the severity and longevity of my illness postnatally. I remained undetected because of stigma, lack of knowledge and health system failures. My story is just one of almost 100,000 across Australia ever year (Deloitte 2012). This must change.
We must raise awareness of perinatal mental illness and the resulting effects on families and the next generation. We need to value the perinatal period as the cornerstone of society’s social and emotional wellbeing, and care for it as such.