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Emily Writes: We have a post-natal depression epidemic and it’s killing mothers

The latest episode of Attitude Documentary series In My Mind focused on the mental health of mothers. For Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes, watching it was both a draining, painful experience and a wake-up call about the epidemic of PND in New Zealand.

Content warning: This post contains discussions and descriptions of mental health and suicide.

About a year and a half ago, after dropping my baby at his brother’s kindy I came home and thought, I have to sleep. I just have to. But there was washing to do and dishes. The vacuuming needed to be done and I had already begun counting the hours I had before I needed to go and get him. He wasn’t meant to be at kindy. But I felt drunk with sleep deprivation and that if I didn’t put him into kindy I might fall over holding him. My husband was exhausted too. He was struggling to drive and his body was breaking down. Our son had been waking every 45 minutes since his birth almost a year before. We were both trying to work and parent and just keep afloat.

I was standing in the kitchen and I remember having the most peaceful and clear thought: I’ll kill myself. If I’m dead, I’ll be asleep. I just couldn’t face another night. I could not handle one more night of not sleeping. Death sounded like a reasonable and logical choice to make.

I grabbed some pills and began walking to the beach.

I thought about my husband and how we had tried so hard to be parents. I began to sob. And then I began to scream. I just want to be a good fucking mother. I just want to sleep. I want to be all of the things I’m supposed to be.

I called my husband and cried down the phone. He found me and he jumped out of the car with it still running. He sat in the wet dirt with me and we cried.

Suicide is the leading cause of maternal death in New Zealand.

One of the brave mothers from In My Mind TV1s new documentary series on women’s mental health

A year on I am on anti-depressants. I take two pills every night and I don’t want to die anymore. In fact I’m really happy – I love being a mum even while I’m exhausted. I see joy where I didn’t before. It took that day for me to go onto anti-depressants and to get therapy. Despite the fact that at the time I was blogging about antenatal depression and counselling other mothers to identify their depression, I didn’t see how unwell I was.

I’d just been given a book deal. I should have been on top of the world. But I was very sick – and I was hiding it well.

I’m very glad that my phone didn’t run out of batteries that day. Or that I didn’t take the right combination of pills that day. Or any of the other things that could have made that day different.

These days I spend a significant portion of my time encouraging other mothers to get help for depression and anxiety. But I haven’t shared how close I came to dying. Every few days I get an email from a mum who is struggling. I talk to her about how I am now – but I don’t say how bad it was. Almost every event I go to ends with mothers crying and hugging each other and trying to work out how they can beat this post-natal demon.

But I haven’t spoken publicly about this because I feel ashamed. And I don’t want to. And if it makes one mum ask for help, or one person ask a mum if she needs help, it will be worth sharing even though it feels humiliating and painful.

Post natal depression in New Zealand is an epidemic.

I was sent the “Mums” episode from the Attitude Documentary series In My Mind to review for The Spinoff Parents last week. I didn’t want to watch it so I left it until the very last minute. So late in fact that it has already aired. But I’m glad I watched it and I’m glad it exists.

I don’t know how we stop losing mothers to post-natal depression. I just know we need to stop it. And talking about it openly has to be a good start.

I wish I knew that I needed help earlier than I got it. I wish I’d not waited until I got “more sleep” because I never did and this isn’t realistic for many parents despite what others say. I wish I’d not thought that everything would just work out – because it didn’t.

And I wish I knew that just because I have – in the past – recognised that I was not mentally well, it didn’t necessarily mean I’d recognise it again. I never saw it coming when I got PND. Despite the fact that I’d struggled with antenatal depression. I kept thinking it was just sleep deprivation.

I wish I’d seen this documentary back then. Watching it even a year later was so powerful. The words of the mothers on the show soothed my still sore heart.

Had I been watching this show when I was ill, I am sure I would have seen myself in these brave women. And maybe I’d have sought help sooner.

One of the brave mothers from In My Mind TV1s new documentary series on women’s mental health

I cried with the incredible mothers on the show.

“I thought I was crazy for thinking I was crazy” one mum says.

Yes.

“Getting up in the morning to take my son to kindy felt like running a marathon. I didn’t think I was worthy of even breathing”.

YES.

“I thought I just needed to get more sleep and everything would fix itself,” another says.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

“I felt so incredibly sorry for my daughter that she had unfortunately been born to me and not somebody who can cope better than me”

Another mum says she was surprised at how many friends have post-natal depression. And I resonate with this too. But I found out about what my friends were going through after they’d been through it. And this post will be a surprise to most who know me. I’ve told only a few very close friends that I attempted suicide.

One in five New Zealand women have post-natal depression.

If there was any other illness impacting us at this rate would we hear more about it? In this silence, we have to speak up. We have to speak up about how we got through, if we got through.

A mother on the show talks about how medication made her feel normal and then even better than normal just one month after she began taking it. She came off anti-depressants after six months.

I am still on medication and have no intention of stopping as it has saved my life and made me a better mother.

I also had three months of weekly therapy which was expensive but extremely helpful.

To me, medication and therapy and the support of my husband changed everything – so I was pleased to see that medication and therapy were featured in the documentary.

But most of all I’m glad the documentary showed parenting after depression. The other side. Because that’s what you don’t see when you’re in it. Depression and sleep deprivation feels like there’s no way out. There’s no tomorrow. Just night after night of agony and suffering. In those moments you very rarely have clarity – someone else needs to be there to show you what can be if you just get help.

But – and this is important: Tackling suicide and self harm in mothers isn’t just about mothers getting help.

It’s about having a properly funded mental health service that identifies mothers who need help early. It’s about having a support network and flexible working hours and wages that mean you’re not having to work on two hours’ sleep.

It’s also about all of those people – family, friends, colleagues, anyone – around mothers who can see what these mums who are suffering in silence can’t see.

And when they see it – they need to get that mum straight away and tell her that there is a way out. And they need to help her get there.

There is a way out. But you can’t do it on your own. You need a village of support.

It’s about time we made this whole country a village.

In My Mind’s episode on mothers’ mental health is available online. I do believe everyone should watch it and I have huge admiration and love for all of the mothers who shared their stories. 

Emily Writes is editor of The Spinoff Parents. Her book Rants in the Dark is out now. Buy it here. Follow her on Facebook here.

Where to get help:

Lifeline – 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Depression Helpline  – 0800 111 757 – this service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors

Samaritans  – 0800 726 666

Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. Text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz.

0800 WHATSUP (0800 9428 787) – Open between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.

Healthline – 0800 611 116

For more information about support and services available to you, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812 during office hours or email info@mentalhealth.org.nz

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