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Birthing Pain: When the joy of childbirth is eclipsed by depression

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Joanna Sherlock with children, Ella Bee, 3, and Cualain, 1. Photo: Ronan Lang/Feature File

Joanna Sherlock with children, Ella Bee, 3, and Cualain, 1. Photo: Ronan Lang/Feature File

Joanna Sherlock

Joanna Sherlock

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Joanna Sherlock with children, Ella Bee, 3, and Cualain, 1. Photo: Ronan Lang/Feature File

BRINGING a baby into the world is a life-changing experience, and many expectant mothers spend their pregnancies focusing on how they'll get through the pregnancy and birth.

However, there's a tendency to overlook what comes next – the moment a child is born, a mother is also born. And, for many, this new role can be very daunting indeed.

Most new mothers have an idealistic vision of how motherhood 'should' be; we expect to feel gloriously happy and content. But it's not always that straight forward. What if your experience doesn't exactly look or feel like what everyone else describes?

The reality is that, for many women, having a baby can be a time of confusion, fear, anxiety, isolation, guilt and even depression.

In fact, every year, over 40,000 women in Ireland will struggle with a variety of pre and postnatal health issues including postnatal depression, depression during pregnancy, post-traumatic stress disorder, miscarriage and much more.

Yet, it's not something that gets talked about very often.

As a nutritionist, I encounter lots of new mums who come looking for help to shift baby weight. So, I've also seen my fair share of mothers struggling with low mood, anxiety and postnatal depression.

Many attribute their low mood with not being able to lose the baby weight and assume that, once they lose it, they'll feel like their old selves again.

For some, it helps, but, in cases of postnatal depression, it's only one small part of the picture. Most health professionals will agree that an integrative treatment plan encompassing professional talk therapy, proper nutrition, exercise and, in some cases, medication, is what works best.

Yet, many women are either unaware of or unable to access the variety of treatment options out there because postnatal depression is still such a taboo subject.

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In fact, it's estimated that at least a quarter of women experiencing postnatal depression go undiagnosed and hence untreated because they are too ashamed to speak about their feelings and ask for help.

Mum of three, Joanna Sherlock, knows all too well how debilitating it can be to suffer in silence.

She suffered from postnatal depression following the birth of her first two children.

She says both incidences were quite similar in terms of how symptoms presented. "It wasn't a case that I couldn't get out of bed, but I was angry at everything and everyone, I cried a lot, I was afraid a lot and I felt totally overwhelmed.

"In fact, most of my day to day thoughts were hijacked by fear. Fear of how the day was going to go, fear of staying in the house, fear of leaving the house.

"At times, I thought I was going crazy, the world as I had known it made no sense to me anymore.

This new ground with all its pressures and expectations made me feel so vulnerable because it brought up a lot of insecurities and emotions that I had buried throughout the years."

Joanna now realises the impact it had on her partner too. "It wasn't a happy time for him either, I wasn't ok with him doing anything or going anywhere.

Everything he did was taken up the wrong way. For example, him playing the Xbox was, in my mind, him ignoring me.

"I found myself regularly shouting at him and the kids and yet I felt sorry for them and was petrified that my emotional state would affect them negatively in the future.

"During some of the worst days, I did believe they'd be better off without me."

But, like many women suffering with postnatal depression, Joanna didn't recognise the symptoms at the time, nor did her family. "I never put a label on what I was experiencing, I didn't know what it was, all I knew was that I was trying to outrun this thing that was somewhere in my mind and body.

"At that time, I didn't know what that 'thing' was, only that I had to run from it. It felt like the devil himself was coming for me."

There are many reasons why a woman may find it difficult to acknowledge or admit that she is struggling with motherhood or, indeed, postnatal depression.

Some worry they'll be viewed as 'weak' or 'ungrateful' or a 'failure'. Others fear they'll be labelled as a 'bad mother' and may even fear their child will be taken off them. Midwives need to reassure women, both individually and as part of antenatal classes, that they will receive non-judgemental support if they report symptoms of depression after birth.

For Joanna, it took a long time before she was able to come to terms with what she was experiencing, and ask for help. "I never wanted to say out loud that I needed help because in my head that meant that I would be 'mentally defeated'.

"But, over time, I began to crumble under the pressure of trying to pretend I was ok. It was something simple like another Xbox argument that finally broke me. I howled like a pre-historic animal that day and I knew then that the price I was paying to keep up appearances was just too high, and so I began my journey towards getting well."

Like many, Joanna found that once she decided to seek help, she wasn't sure where or who to turn to. "I was put on a waiting list for a visiting psychiatrist to the local health centre, but the list was endless so I had no choice but to source my own private counselling, which was expensive but, in the end, it saved my life."

Since then, Joanna has qualified as a psychotherapist herself and helps women in similar situations through her work as a counsellor for an organisation called Nurture.

Nurture is an Irish charity which offers affordable, professional counselling and support to women and their families through the challenges surrounding pregnancy and childbirth. This includes peri/postnatal depression, traumatic births, failed IVF, stillbirths & miscarriages, as well as neonatal death.

Counsellor and CEO of Nurture, Irene Lowry, says early intervention is crucial. "We set up Nurture due to the tragic deaths of two young mothers battling postnatal depression who died through suicide. These women were on public waiting lists, seeking a counsellor, for over nine months.

"I personally attended their funerals and I found it more than distressing knowing that if they had received timely professional help, they might be alive today. I knew I had to find a way to ensure women had faster access to professional and affordable counselling, and so Nurture was born."

Those who turn to Nurture are seen by a professional counsellor within two weeks of contacting the charity.

In severe cases, an individual will be seen to within 24/48 hours.

Nurture's philosophy is one of supporting individuals and their partners and families through individual counselling, support groups, and educational events.

Irene's vision for the future is clear: "Nurture's aim is to continue to roll out these critical support services across Ireland.

"We are not government funded and therefore are reliant on the generosity of those we have helped and the general public." As a counsellor for Nurture, Joanna has seen first hand the benefits that individual counselling and support groups can bring. "I have to stress how relieved women tell us they feel even after their first counselling session – the pressure starts to lift as soon as they talk about how they truly feel.

"Similarly, we've had people come into support groups and literally cry with relief that someone else was having the same scary thoughts they were having.

"It is so important for a woman to feel understood in a non-judgemental way.

"I have seen people return to work, who thought they never would. I have seen anger turn into pain, turn into positive self development. I have seen women turn to face their innermost fears and be grateful they did it. I have seen them make changes and become exactly who they want to be.

"And, most of all, I have heard them tell others to look for support as soon as possible because they didn't and they regret it.

That's why we always say to people, if you think you may be struggling in anyway, pick up the phone and chat to us, because, at the end of the day, it really is ok to talk about it."

Nurture will host an Emotional Wellbeing Education Conference in the Gresham Hotel, Dublin on May 10, 2014.

The event will cover a number of topics relating to physical, mental and emotional wellbeing before, during and after pregnancy, including talks from leading experts on fertility, nutrition and lifestyle, postnatal depression, coping with grief and how to develop a wellness recovery action plan. The event is open to all members of the public and health professionals.


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