A report published by Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists on maternal mental health care found that up to 1 in 5 women develop mental health problems during pregnancy or in the first year postpartum1. And that nine out of ten people with mental health problems experience stigma.
One of many key findings from the RCOG’s survey of 2300 women was that 81% of the women surveyed had experienced a maternal mental health problem2.
The trouble with the stigma around mental health is that it has created a visible barrier between the mothers that are suffering from mental health illnesses and the rest of society. In order for the stigma to be broken, mothers must unite, speak up and share their stories to inspire and show others that they are not alone in their battles… which, of course, is easier said than done when that same barrier that must be knocked down, is the reason why so many do not speak out through the fear and shame label that mental health illnesses carry.
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It’s common knowledge that the stigma surrounding maternal mental health is rife in society. But sadly, it is often also the case that this stigma can be found much closer to home, among loved ones closest to us. And in my experience, it's because of this that many mothers struggle to even seek help in the first place.
Mothers seeking validation and support from family and friends likely already feel vulnerable and alone, as mental health is such a taboo subject. Unless the people they turn to have experienced it themselves, the lack of understanding around mental health illnesses may have already shaped their opinion. So when those around them are unable to offer words of encouragement and reassurance, it leaves mothers feeling even more isolated.
When I first started to struggle with my mental health, I sought help from those closest to me. At the time, I believed that because they cared for me, they would be able to help me. The truth is, though, nobody seemed to understand what I was thinking and feeling. I was told that there was no such thing as depression.
That I’d put myself in this situation, and because of that, I had to shake it off and carry on. Not forgetting the anger and disappointment I was met with. I remember coming away feeling frustrated, confused and even more alone. I felt so embarrassed and ashamed so instead of seeking help, I carried on until I hit my breaking point.
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I remember feeling so much fear about opening up to the health professionals. I was scared that I would leave them thinking that I was an unfit mother and that I was crazy. I was so ashamed and worried that I would be judged for feeling the way I did and that they, too, would tell me that there wasn’t anything wrong with me.
When I finally sought help, it quickly became clear just how little is known about the services available to mothers, both new and old. And although I was offered help, this help came with huge waiting times and no real immediate support.
I have been battling postnatal depression and postnatal anxiety for almost six years now. And out of those six years, I spent five of them struggling alone, in silence. It’s only since I’ve started sharing my own raw, unfiltered PND/PNA journey on social media that I’ve realised just how many other mothers are also fighting an inside battle.
It’s only now that I have found ways to function with my depression that I can really see the lack of help for mothers who are struggling with their mental health. Looking back even up until today, I know how and why the stigma around mental health leaves so many unable to use their voice.
Sharing my mental health journey is not easy. It’s not pretty, nor does it come without a huge amount of judgment from outsiders. But for every comment or message I receive from those who pass judgment, I am met with many messages from thankful mums whose thoughts and feelings are validated and who are reminded that they are not alone.
It’s only when we come together to support one another and feel empowered enough to stand up and own our stories, will this stigma really be broken.
Remember, admitting you need help and asking for help is the bravest thing you’ll ever do! Please seek help if you feel as though you need it.
1/ Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists 2017 Karina Russell with input from members of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, Annette Ashley, Gerald Chan, Samantha Gibson and Rebecca Jones. Copy-edited and typeset by Andrew Welsh. - (8/58) maternal mental health putting into context1 - (9/58) key findings from RCOG’s survey2