Reducing the stigma of post-natal depression

Post-baby depression can be isolating, says Helen O’Callaghan

ABOUT 12,000 women are diagnosed with post-natal depression (PND) annually in Ireland, with about the same number going undiagnosed.

The condition carries massive stigma, says Irene Lowry, counsellor and CEO of Nurture, a nationwide service offering counselling and therapy to women, partners, and families experiencing a pregnancy or childbirth-related maternal mental health illness.

Nurture recently won an Impact Award — worth €140,000 of funding and support — at the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Awards. Ms Lowry set up the service when two young mothers she was working with died by suicide. Yet, she says, the 2015 suicide wellness document published by the HSE —Connecting for Life — does not even mention maternal mental health. “That tells a story all on its own.”

Ms Lowry says there are women battling PND terrified their babies will be removed from them. “They find it extremely difficult to talk about their real feelings or open up with their partner.”

PND is a condition that costs families hugely. The mum, unavailable to her infant, may compromise his/her development. “The woman can be withdrawn and so can the newborn. As the baby gets to about 18 months, he/she starts mimicking what it’s seeing.” PND fallout includes inconsistent parenting where the mum may be one minute withdrawn and the next over-anxious.

“Untreated PND can impact children’s later cognitive and language development, as well as their social development.”

Older siblings may take on inappropriate roles.

“A child may over-identify with the mother’s symptoms and have similar issues. A ‘rescue’ child may try to fill the adult’s role,” says Ms Lowry. What’s hugely helpful to sufferers and families is realising that PND is not a reflection on the mother — she is acting as she is because of PND symptoms (feeling low, isolated, identity-loss, sleep deprivation, inability to cope).

“This takes away that burden of feeling you’re a terrible parent. It also reduce stigma.”

Families often want to help but should avoid taking over the mother’s role. “Really, it’s about supporting the mother, listening to her, not taking over.” So if a new mum says she can’t bath the baby or put it to bed, families help best by supporting her as she does these tasks.

PND is a progressive illness that doesn’t go away without professional support, says Ms Lowry.

Top tips

  • Reach out. Contact your GP or public health nurse. Talk to a family member or friend.
  • Educate yourself — Google PND symptoms.
  • Look after yourself: eat a healthy diet, exercise, and get enough sleep.
  • PND is not a reflection on you as a parent/mother.
  • Realise that with support there is light at the end of the tunnel.


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