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Why having postnatal depression finally drove these mums to breaking point

Two mothers share their heartbreaking stories of why giving birth was a time blighted by misery and despair. Writer Lisa Smyth, who also suffered from postnatal depression, says women here desperately need more support

Published 22/12/2015

Emotional battle: single parent Emma Graham
Emotional battle: single parent Emma Graham
Motherly love: Emma Graham with daughter Pippa
Jenny Thompson with sons Sam (left) and Isaac
Journalist Lisa Smyth with her daughter Grace

The birth of a baby is supposed to be a time of joy. It is assumed new mums will be overwhelmed by love for their new arrival, that they will take on their new role with devotion and ease.

But what happens when a woman struggles to cope and slips into depression or suffers a mental health crisis?

Emma Graham knows only too well the devastating impact of postnatal depression.

The single mum-of-one from Coleraine, Co Londonderry, found out she was pregnant in October 2011, when she was a dance teacher.

"I thought I was going to feel extremely joyful but it ended up being my worst nightmare," she recalls.

"I was constantly sick, I couldn't eat anything and I lived off a diet of sparkling water and ham.

"I ended up losing more weight than I was gaining and had many worries, ranging from whether or not the baby was growing to catching every infection going.

"By the time I gave birth in June 2012, I was exhausted and thought things could only get better."

The arrival of little Pippa, however, would trigger a mental health crisis so bad that 28-year-old Emma eventually ended up in hospital after a failed suicide attempt.

While she bonded with and loved Pippa deeply, she says she could not shake the feeling that she was failing her daughter.

"I watched other people with her and they just seemed so much more natural around her," she explains.

"I knew I didn't feel right, but at no stage did I think I would get so ill that I would end up in hospital.

"I just thought that I was struggling and that at some point it would all click into place."

The opposite was true - and she plunged deeper into a dark depression as her condition went undiagnosed.

She carried on until February when she ended up at a GP appointment about an entirely unrelated complaint. "When I went in I was just flat, there was nothing there, no emotion, I was just done," she says.

"The GP realised there was something wrong.

"He was the first person to listen, it was such a relief as I finally felt there was a reason for why I was crying all the time, or sitting awake all night.

"He said he could see I had no energy and no life in me and he started me on medication and referred me for counselling.

"By this stage, it was just too late and it wasn't enough to help me.

"I stopped eating and between February and April I lost two stone, my hair started thinning.

"I was sleeping a lot during the day and not sleeping at night because I was terrified of having nightmares.

"I was just shutting down, I didn't want to go out of the house and when I did I would just panic."

Emma's health became so bad that two people had to be at home with her at all times - one to look after Pippa and one to care for her.

She began to self harm and admitted to her counsellor that she was considering suicide.

"We couldn't have any knives or medication in our house," she adds.

"Things were getting worse and worse, I thought everyone would be better off if I wasn't there because I was causing them so much pain.

"We lived in a ground floor apartment at the time and the week of my proper crisis I climbed out one of the windows while my friends were in another room.

"I just wanted to run away, so I ran to the train station but I just missed the train.

"One of my friend's dads worked there and he saw me, he came over and gave me a big hug.

"Everything had just built up so badly, it was 10 months after Pippa was born and the pain I was feeling was too much.

"Pippa was such a happy baby, she was beautiful and everyone loved spending time with her.

"No-one tried to make me feel like a burden but that's what I felt like.

"I felt like even if I wasn't there Pippa would still be a very loved little baby and well looked after.

"I just gave up, I felt like there was no way out, I wasn't thinking rationally and two days before my birthday I attempted to take my own life."

Fortunately, she was discovered by friends and rushed to the nearby Causeway Hospital.

Emma's bid to take her own life would mark the beginning of her road to recovery.

She spent one week in hospital before she was sent to a specialist mental health unit where she stayed for another five weeks.

"I thought everyone in there would be mad and that I would be labelled for the rest of my life, but actually everyone was really friendly," she says.

"I wasn't judged and I was helped to realise that I could work through my issues."

Finally getting the help she needed, Emma was able to recognise how ill she had become.

"I worked really hard to get better," she adds.

A few weeks later she applied for a job with mental health charity Niamh (Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health).

"I was very open on the application form about what I was going through and never thought I would get an interview, but I did, and I actually got the job," she says.

"I'm now working in their Beacon Day Support Service in Ballymena and trying to set up a support group for women who have postnatal depression.

"It's such an isolating experience and it is only now that I am finding out how many other women go through it."

Emma is far from alone - and while her illness was extreme, she is by no means unique. I know myself how isolating postnatal depression can be, having suffered with the condition after the birth of my daughter, Grace, in July 2013.

Like Emma, however, I was not immediately diagnosed and the darkness and desperation I felt were put down to baby blues.

After confiding in one health professional that I was struggling, I was told: "What do you expect? You've just had a baby."

The reality was much more serious - but I believe the most troubling thing about my case was the fact that I flagged up my concerns about my mental health throughout my pregnancy.

Having suffered from depression before I was aware that I was at risk, so when I found out I was pregnant, I spoke to the health professionals to voice my concerns and was assured I would be closely monitored.

Consequently, when I plucked up the courage to tell someone how I was feeling I was devastated to be brushed off so casually.

By this stage, I wasn't eating, I was getting by on one or two hours of broken sleep, I spent most of the time in tears, my thoughts were getting darker.

I was terrified of being alone with Grace, even though I knew I loved her deeply, I just felt numb.

I felt as though I had failed because I had fallen ill again and because I couldn't care for my baby the way I wanted to.

My husband Kenny and I both asked for help on several occasions but the health professionals seemed too busy to take our concerns seriously.

In the end, a sympathetic GP recognised I was unwell and prescribed medication.

I am better now but it took almost a year before I felt like myself - and I do feel more could have been done by the medical profession to either prevent my illness or help me once I started to suffer. I had an unpleasant pregnancy, marred with ill health and I even ended up in hospital towards the end with a suspected stroke.

The birth itself was fairly traumatic, after I developed a life-threatening case of pre-eclampsia and Grace was delivered by emergency Caesarean section.

After returning home, I developed an infection in my wound and Grace was diagnosed with silent reflux - causing her to scream in pain for hours on end.

Difficult pregnancies and births, previous mental health problems and postnatal complications are all recognised contributing factors to postnatal depression.

More should have been done to help me - but then mental health services for pregnant women and new mums in Northern Ireland are alarmingly poor.

Research has shown that 80% of areas in the province have no specialist mental health services for women who suffer mental ill health, either during pregnancy or after giving birth.

And health experts have called for better services in the form of an open letter to the health minister, Simon Hamilton, stating that early intervention is crucial to recovery.

Of course, not everyone struggles to get the help they need.

Jenny Thompson suffered with postnatal depression after the birth of her second son, Isaac, now five.

The 35-year-old childminder from Cregagh in east Belfast had never had any problems with her mental health before.

But as soon as Isaac arrived, Jenny was aware that something was wrong.

"Right away I knew it was different to when Sam, now seven, had been born," she recalls.

"I didn't feel right towards him, I didn't feel right in myself because I am normally such a confident person.

"I remember trying to get help in the middle of the night but there was no staff to help me, so I was crying then - but actually it is all a bit of a blur.

"My memories of that time are very fuzzy, to be honest.

"Isaac was a more difficult baby than Sam, although there were reasons for that as he had silent reflux.

"It sounds silly now but at the time all I could think was I couldn't cope with this screaming baby for the next 18 years.

"During those first few months I was getting by on very broken sleep; I have since read that sleep deprivation is a method used in torture, and I can see now how that makes sense.

"There were times during those nights where I felt as though I needed to feel some pain, so I had to put the baby down and dig my nails into my skin or bang my head off the wall, just to feel something."

As time went on, Jenny's condition impacted more on her ability to function on a day-to-day basis. "I had a toddler and a baby so I had to keep going for them but I took everything out on my husband Phil, blaming him for everything.

"There were times when I would have to get away, so I would leave Phil with a screaming baby and a bewildered toddler.

"I couldn't take a joke and even innocent comments from strangers would upset me.

"There was one occasion when I was at a mother and baby group and my older son, Sam, was being clingy.

"This woman made a comment about how he would be difficult to get him to go to nursery and I just snapped.

"I bit her head off, stamped out and sat in the car crying my eyes out.

"You know how you're supposed to feel when your baby is born, so it was very hard to tell anyone how I was feeling. Inside I was screaming for help, I knew things weren't right, I couldn't connect with Isaac.

"It's really hard to put into words, it was very isolating for me, the blackness was endless and I didn't see any way out."

Luckily for Jenny, when she finally made the decision to tell someone how she was feeling she was immediately offered help.

She was referred to her GP and sent to Aware NI, a mental health charity, where she completed a counselling course to help her overcome her illness.

"I had a really brilliant health visitor and she was so understanding," she explains.

"The course at Aware was brilliant and it taught me coping mechanisms that I use to this day."

  • Anyone suffering from mental ill health can contact Niamh on, tel: 028 9032 8474 or log on to Aware NI's website at www.aware-ni.org. Support is available to anyone in crisis by contacting Lifeline on, tel: 0808 808 8000

Belfast Telegraph

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