North Belfast mum-of-three Michelle Bradley, 34, has penned a new book on the depression and anxiety she struggled with during her pregnancies in the hope of helping other mums fighting the condition.
Perinatal depression can occur during or after pregnancy, and many women feel deeply ashamed of suffering with the illness instead of blooming with joy on the arrival of their little one - the cliched image is of a happy post-birth mummy warmly and happily cuddling her newborn without a care in the world.
But for many mums, the reality of pregnancy and birth is a very different one, and those who have suffered like Michelle are speaking out to help others who struggle with poor mental health during the process of gestation, birth and afterwards.
According to one study, at least 13 per cent of women face the debilitating effects of major depressive disorder (MDD) while pregnant, while another finds that 11–20 per cent suffer from post‐partum depressive symptoms. So this is a very significant health problem for women.
Michelle’s new book Pangs: Suriving Motherhood and Mental Illness, which was released in March 30, outlines her own very personal experiences and how she finally managed to recover.
“I suffered anxiety during the first trimester of my first pregnancy with my daughter Alexis but the problems really emerged after a traumatic birth which induced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When she was born I just had no interest in anything. I started to have panic attacks and it was horrendous.
“I had them every day for months on end. After about four months of this I asked my husband to walk outside with me in the snow.
“The anxiety and panic had just went on for so long at that stage that I just couldn’t get any release from them. The anxiety led to depression and I just said to my husband Eoin ‘Look, if I can’t get out of this, I don’t know what to do.’ I really didn’t want to die but at the same time I didn’t know what to do.”
After a trip to her GP Michelle began a course of Cognitive Behavourial Therapy (CBT) and decided to start an online support group called PANGS so that women undergoing a similar ordeal could share their thoughts and concerns.
Michelle also saw a ‘Birth Afterthoughts’ midwife at the Ulster Hospital who was treating women with post-birth trauma to help them reprocess and come to terms with events.
Michelle’s second pregnancy was also fraught and she again availed of counselling to alleviate her anxiety. “With Cooper’s birth I had an amazing midwife and afterwards I had the tools to know how to manage stress, anxiety and depression. But it was still a difficult process.”
Third child Luna came next and Michelle went back to therapy and was referred to a service providing complementary treatments and hynobirthing techniques.
“When my first child was born I went looking for a support group of like-minded women who suffered anxiety and depression during and after birth and I couldn’t find one so I decided to set one up.
“This was particularly vital because Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that doesn’t have a specific maternal mental health unit and many women experiencing such difficulties are separated from their babies and placed in general psychiatric wards.”
A recent study undertaken by the NSPCC in Northern Ireland looked at the perspective of health visitors and midwives who provide services to women and families during the perinatal period.
It recommended considerable challenges in caring for women with perinatal mental illness, outlining underfunding, overwork and growing levels and complexity of demand.
The report also recommended that every Health and Social Care Trust (HSCT) in Northern Ireland should have specialist perinatal mental health services and a regional mother and baby unit should be established.
Michelle’s online PANGS group now has 520 members with lots of mums confessing to serious anxiety and depression before, during and after birth.
“For a lot of women giving birth is very difficult and if you don’t get that massive rush of love immediately after the child is born you are made to feel like you are a failure of a mother or that you should feel ashamed and that you fall short.
“The reality is that it takes time to bond with your baby. Navigating the transition to motherhood is full of challenges you may not be prepared for.
“I think the most important thing is to talk with other women going through the same difficulties and to ask your GP for whatever psychological therapies they can offer. You need to find the courage to speak out if you are not feeling well and realise that this is not something you are responsible for. Keep talking. Perinatal depression is one hundred per cent treatable.”
Michelle still sees a psychologist but is now on an even keel and a happier mum to Alexis (6), Cooper (3) and Luna (1).
She wrote her book over the summer months and describes it as the kind of self-help manual she was looking for during her own pregnancies.
“I wanted to record what I’d been through and really provide some kind of help or guidance for other mums-to-be who were struggling. I decided to mix my personal story and then give more general advice about the importance of talking therapies and peer support groups.”
The book begins with a raw and honest account of Michelle’s own experiences, detailing her downward spiral and ultimately her turning point to recovery. The book also features a self-help and resources section for parents who are looking for some further support and guidance.
“I want this book to help shine a guiding light on those still walking through the darkness of mental illness. Most importantly, I want this book to help break the stigma that many parents are facing and find a way to make conversations about our mental health to become easier and more mainstream.”
And to any mothers out there who feel like they are struggling - Michelle says don’t be afraid to speak out.
“If you are having any feelings that are unpleasant or unwanted and are affecting your daily life that you didn’t have before you had a baby or were pregnant, if they are lasting more than two weeks that’s a sign you need to speak to somebody.”
She adds: “Speak and speak early and keep talking until somebody listens.”
Pangs: Surviving Motherhood and Mental Illness is available on Amazon now.
PANGS NI, an online peer support group for women with perinatal mental illness can be found at www.wearepangs.com.