I’ve been thinking about the concept of mental health for most of my life. My maternal grandfather was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (at one time or another – psychiatry states that you can’t have both) and so mental wellbeing has always been part of our family’s dialogue. As a result I’ve never felt uncomfortable with it, although I’m very aware that the stigma is real.
This stigma actually plays a large role in why I speak so candidly – and frequently – about mental health. Although my intention isn’t to beat you over the head with it (to use one of my brash Americanisms), I do know that the more we speak about something the faster it becomes normalized, which is an important step in challenging current perceptions and empowering people to seek out needed support.
Current statistics say that one in four people will experience a mental health problem this year (Mind) and so if you don’t know anyone who has been impacted than chances are you’re living under a rock (or –more likely – not asking the right questions).
Furthermore, mental illness doesn’t just impact the one who is directly suffering; it also touches everyone else in his or her life. It affects physical health, personal relationships, job prospects, and even life expectancy. It also doesn’t discriminate based on social or economic status, so everyone is vulnerable.
Maternal mental health and me.
Before becoming pregnant myself I had no idea how prevalent mental illness is during the perinatal period (during pregnancy or in the first year after giving birth). Globally, about 10% of women experience a serious mental disorder during this time, although this number is exponentially higher in developing countries (WHO). Suicide is also the leading cause of death for women in the UK during the perinatal period (Everyone’s Business). Anxiety and depression are the two most common maternal mental health disorders.
I experienced perinatal anxiety with both of my pregnancies. It was hugely impactful to all three of our lives (mine, my husband’s and Poppy’s) in the year or two after she was born, before I became more self-aware and conscious of the impact that my choices and habits were having on my mental wellbeing. I was able to manage my anxiety myself, however many women need outside support and medication and there is absolutely no shame in this. On the contrary, it takes a great deal of strength to admit that you need help.
I’ve learned that my anxiety is respondent to stress, and it is often accompanied by general feelings of frustration and impatience – but I’ve also amassed a collection of skills and tools that I use to keep myself feeling balanced and happy. There is no permanent “cure” or “fix” when it comes to mental health. It is a lifelong journey, but it is one that can become easier to manage with the right support. I believe that if there had been more dialogue with my midwife about how to maintain my mental wellbeing during pregnancy, than it would never have spiralled to the dark and scary place that it did. Pregnancy and impending motherhood is an emotional time (to say nothing of all those free-flowing hormones) and it’s unsurprising – at least in my opinion – that one would feel increased pressure, stress, worry, and higher than normal levels of anxiety.
I’m currently studying mental health nursing – now on maternity leave – and I have a strong interest in maternal and children’s mental health. This is mostly due to being influenced by my own experiences, but I’ve also always had a big thing for efficiency (must.be.efficient). Simply put, it makes far more sense to teach children the skills that they need to be resilient and well, than it does to attempt to rectify the problems later on. It’s also a much kinder approach.
Who knows what all of this means for the future (career-wise), but in the here and now I’m blogging because I think that often the information available on this subject isn’t very easy to digest. The facts and statistics can be grim and at my darkest point I found myself craving real, tangible examples of women who were living – or had lived – through the same reality that I was. I wanted to find strength in our shared experience, and was searching for some rays of hope and positivity. Even now I sometimes find myself struggling with how to incorporate a healthy level of emotional awareness into our family dynamic. I would also like to use this space to share the resources I’ve discovered, and to create a community where we can support each other and have an exchange of ideas and knowledge.
On the sharing note (“sharing is caring” as my four-year-old likes to say), anyone local-ish to Somerset might be interested to know that @thefmylstore in Bruton does some great events. Also, their founder Molly Gunn is seriously lovely and really inclusive – so don’t worry about rocking up alone! I recently attended a talk called Mad Girls with Bryony Gordon (@Bryonygordon), Jo Love (@lobellaloves) and Amy Ransom (@survivingmotherhood_) and it was oh-so-good. One of the things covered – aside from some pretty hysterical buzz on motherhood + general chatter about maternal mental health – was that we really are a part of the first generation where discussing our mental health isn’t considered taboo. It’s becoming increasingly socially acceptable to be open and forthcoming, however there is still a great way to go. Today the stigma still exists, but if we continue to have this conversation than our children and grandchildren may very well live in a world where it doesn’t. They may not feel the crushing weight of being unwell and feeling alone and unable to tell anyone, and they might have access to the resources that they need if they do become unwell.
Why should you care?
Talking about our mental health is about so much more than just our own wellbeing – which is, of course, very important – but it also contributes to changing the culture surrounding mental health. As a mother whose children inhabit a world where mental health problems in young people are on the rise, this is an issue very dear to my heart (YoungMinds).
I’ve never felt more impassioned and powerful than I do now that I’m a mother. There is something about being responsible for these little beings that drives me to do better and be a part of great change. I also feel more innately connected to other women, which is something that I’m betting I’m not alone in. I won’t for a second pretend to have all of the answers, but what I do think is that we’re stronger together.
I’ve started a hashtag and it’s #mamasformentalhealth. Let’s build a collective of thoughtful mothers who are thinking and talking about the lessons that we are bestowing on our children. There really is no better way to teach than to lead by example. So, strive for that ever-elusive balance, talk to your kids about their feelings and teach them how to cope with negative emotions, and show them what self-love is. Let’s encourage others to make mental health education a part of their parenting journey, because you don’t have to have to have everything all figured out (I sure as hell don’t) simply having the conversation is a great place to start. There is more on this campaign here.
*If you or anyone you know needs more support, here are some resources.*