I’ve always believed in having really strong personal support networks. Over 10 years of working closely alongside, or delivering, mental health projects has compounded my belief in the power of peer support. When my daughter was born in 2012, I quickly developed symptoms of postnatal depression, something I’ve blogged about frequently. At the heart of all of my interactions with health professionals was a desire to talk to other new mums about their experiences.
They suggested I might get that 'peer support' from mother and baby groups; that getting out might help me shake off the blues. I started getting along to a local group; four weeks postpartum, but most of the babies were older. I would join in with the songs, trying to paint on a smile, singing for all the other kids, whilst my little one slept through the whole thing. I felt very silly! Sometimes I felt very tearful, but it looked like everyone else was having a really good time. New mums looked really relaxed. They posted on Facebook about how amazing motherhood was, whereas I was really uncertain of myself as a new mother. Sleep deprivation hit me incredibly hard, and I had this dialogue in my head that I was really bad at parenting and struggled to relax and just trust my instincts.
This is a long story short version of treatment, but, after a round of talking therapies, followed by some really intensive CBT which really opened my eyes to my eventual postnatal depression and later OCD diagnosis, I started to feel more confident as a parent. I was more confident that I could go back to work and manage these two roles alongside each other. Stepping back into the workplace and talking to colleagues about my new life as a parent, I felt there was something missing. My story wasn’t easily told and I’ve always been engaged in work to reduce the stigma; saying “I enjoyed my year out” masked the reality of new parenthood and a new diagnosis.
I had an unshakeable feeling that I wanted other parents to know that there is hope that when you feel you can’t go on, you’ll never sleep again or you can’t imagine ever being the parent you hoped and dreamed of, you will get there. It takes time, support, possibly professional support, but you’ll get there. I Googled "self-help" and "peer support" and came across PANDAS Foundation. Together with PANDAS and with support from Launchpad in Newcastle, I set up a Newcastle Upon Tyne Peer Support Group for anyone affected by pre- or postnatal depression.
The early weeks of setup involved some research. By talking to other Mams about their experiences, I found that a) accessing talking therapies when you don’t have childcare is really an impossible situation b) Dads needed support to talk about the impact of PND too and c) the perinatal period in mental health terms is more than just the 12 months post-birth frequently cited, parental mental health is for life, not just for the first year!
What we’ve set up is a really informal, but strongly supportive peer support group that’s inclusive of children, fathers and the wider family network, and that tries to reach out to anyone who wants to support their peers through their ongoing recovery.
Coming to a PANDAS group is a chance to meet as a small group, to share experiences, gain emotional support and realise you're not alone, helping make life's challenges as a new parent a little bit easier. By reaching out and talking about parental mental health I hope we’ll start to see a different discourse. Perhaps one where those Facebook posts present more of the reality of new parenthood, where coping with sleep deprivation and low mood are discussed at baby groups and ‘it’s OK not to be OK’ becomes more openly accepted.
I'm sure you'll agree, this is an incredibly important issue and, despite what you might think, affects new Dads and well as new Mums. If you're going through pre- or post-natal depression there are people you can talk to. Whether you're going through it or need to support your partner, take Angela's advice. She clearly knows what she's talking about. We'd love to know what you think, so leave a comment below.
You can keep up-to-date with Angela on Twitter, where's she's @angbroadbridge. She also has her own blog right here. The organisation Angela mentioned, PANDA, are on Twitter as @pandas_uk or you can contact them via their Facebook page.