Monday, July 28, 2008

Breaking the Taboo of Post-Natal Depression

Earlier this month, a 41-year-old woman committed suicide four months after the birth of her second child. Kate Chetwynd was a successful woman with a supportive family and, as The Scotsman put it ‘everything to live for’ – she also had post-natal depression. Her tragic death has left a family devastated and two young children without a mother. It also raises uncomfortable questions about the extent to which mothers suffering from post-natal depression are given the care and support they need to overcome this debilitating condition.

Kate Chetwynd had been diagnosed with post-natal depression and her family appear to have done everything possible to help her. For many women, however, post-natal depression is a burden they feel forced to carry alone, afraid to tell even family members for fear of being labelled ‘bad mothers.’

Some women fear that if health professionals such as doctors or health visitors realise they are depressed, their babies will be taken from them. Midwives need to reassure women, both individually and as part of ante-natal classes, that they will receive non-judgemental medical support if they report symptoms of depression after birth.

Mental illness in general carries an unjust social stigma, none more so than post-natal depression, which is sometimes called ‘smiling depression’ as sufferers struggle to conceal the symptoms and live up to the expectations of friends and family. One correspondent who wished to remain anonymous, told me:

“Never in my life have I felt so alone. I was very unwell after a traumatic birth experience and developed childbed fever afterwards, but I was so desperate to be a perfect mother that I wouldn’t even let the doctor call an ambulance when I started fitting with the high temperature. I just didn’t understand what was happening to me. I had this beautiful baby I adored, but for months I felt so depressed there were times when I didn’t think I could go on much longer.

“Instead of trying to help, some of my relatives seemed shocked and angry that I wasn’t coping as well as they had expected. I found myself being excluded, criticised and treated to a steady flow of put-downs and insulting lectures that took me to breaking point. My lowest moment was being asked, as I held my baby in my arms: ‘You don’t regret having a baby, do you?’ I eventually pulled through thanks to the support of my husband, but the experience did lasting harm to my relationship with my extended family and made me realise how important it is to respond compassionately and intelligently to women in such a state.”

The need to respond ‘compassionately and intelligently’ is of utmost importance in reaching out to mothers who are suffering from or at risk of post-natal depression. A booklet on PND produced by MIND makes an interesting observation about the indifference with which mothers are treated in western cultures. It states: “Mothers do not enjoy high status in the West, and there are hardly any rituals to honour them, or celebrate their new role.”

If we value motherhood, we should be prepared to go out of our way to support mothers and to celebrate the fundamentally important role mothers play in our society. It is as vital a part of building a culture of life as lobbying an MP.