Often, we don’t know how we’re ‘expected’ to feel and there’s no clear road map to guide us. After years of following instructions and clearly defined pathways, we find ourselves in unchartered territory and it can be immensely overwhelming.
Understanding and recognising the myriad of symptoms that are part and parcel of perinatal mental illness is one thing, but seeking support can seem like a huge challenge.
When I was at my worst, I simply felt that I was beyond help and ‘abnormal’. PMI has a way of contaminating the mind to lead you to believe that you are different from everyone else. I didn’t believe people who told me I would recover because I was in the grip of the illness and my mind felt like it had been hijacked. In more rational moments I came to realise that this was part of the cycle of negative thinking patterns and this realisation brought momentary relief, in the midst of the chaos.
Having spoken to parents at our groups and by attending clinical networks and hearing feedback from health professionals, there are some really consistent themes emerging when it comes to challenges to seeking help. The growing virtual perinatal mental health network, thanks to the conception of #pndhour by Rosey (@pndandme), has also enabled us to expand the conversation about overcoming obstacles to seeking support. Here are just five of the key recurring themes:
1. Many parents believe that their child will be taken away from them if they disclose symptoms of perinatal mental illness to a health professional. This reiterates a false correlation between PMI and being a good parent – when in fact the two issues are quite separate. Keeping families together is a priority and intervention only occurs when there is evidence of serious safeguarding risks. On the contrary, seeking help is often indicative of a clear will to be the best parent you can be by recognising that you require help.
2. Fear of judgement is up there too. Mums and dads feel that by admitting to struggling with their mental health will separate them from the pack and label them. Again, this is founded on the ridiculous notion that PMI is a choice rather than a debilitating illness. It takes courage to ask for help, but the majority of people respect and admire honesty as it creates empathy.
3. A lack of understanding of symptoms. Perinatal mental illness is complex and no two experiences are the same. There are a myriad of symptoms that can range in their severity so people can struggle to be diagnosed and can therefore fall ‘under the radar’.
4. Terminology. Unhelpful phrases like ‘baby blues’ can underplay the severity of perinatal mental illness and make people believe that they don’t need help when they do. Also perinatal mental illness includes prenatal anxiety, depression, OCD and psychosis as well as postnatal. We need to be using more consistent language so people understand the different forms it takes.
5. We have a false belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness. In truth, it’s the opposite. Being vulnerable takes incredible strength.
There is also the issue of perinatal mental illness being intangible. It’s nebulous, mercurial and hard to explain. Sometimes it feels like words are insufficient. We recognise that talking to a health professional, whether it’s a GP, health visitor or midwife, can be difficult. Lots of mums were coming to us at our groups saying that they weren’t able to articulate how they felt at appointments, so we developed a simple checklist that you can download from our site and fill in ahead of your appointment so you can make the most of the window of opportunity and you’re fully aware of the support you’re entitled to: http://www.thesmilegroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/appointment-check-list1.pdf
We all want to be good parents and to raise our children by giving them the best possible support. Perinatal mental illness can bring a heavy dose of ‘mind trickery’ to convince us that we’re somehow falling short. But the reality is that accepting we are vulnerable and need help is the biggest, boldest and most courageous step we can take.
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