In honour of Maternal Mental Health Awareness week, we take a look at maternal mental health and what can emerge during the transition to motherhood. We’ll also take a look at the roads to recovery, including how counselling can provide support during a maternal journey.
What is maternal mental health?
We all have mental health. Much like physical health, we feel well at times, unwell at others. Most of us will experience periods where we struggle with our mental health. Sometimes we can cope and sometimes some help… well, helps !
One in five women experience mental health difficulties during pregnancy or within the first year following the birth of their baby. This can include depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, or intrusive or distressing thoughts. Some new mothers experience feelings of trauma or develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following childbirth; a small number develop postpartum psychosis, a serious but treatable mental health condition that affects up to two women in every thousand. The additional uncertainty and isolation during the Coronavirus pandemic has also affected many.
We know that for some women who have experienced mental health difficulties in the past, the transition to motherhood can be linked to a re-appearance or worsening of symptoms. For others, it may be the first time they’ve experienced emotional difficulties. Whatever your experience, recovery is absolutely possible with the right support.
Here are some common worries:
Everyone else seems to be doing so well
We know most mothers find the transition to motherhood challenging in one way or another. It can bring up all sorts of concerns linked to how you’ll bring your baby into the world, or whether you will adapt to life with a tiny and entirely dependent new person.
On the surface, it may appear that others have it “sorted”, however, the reality is likely to be very different. If you can find the courage to talk about how you’re feeling with someone you trust, you’ll likely find you are far from alone.
If I tell anyone I’m finding things difficult, my baby might be taken away or people will think I’m a bad mum
A common worry about telling anyone that you’re struggling, is about how others will judge your capacity to mother, or about your child(ren) being taken away, especially if you were to seek professional help. It’s important to know that being open about how you’re feeling is a really strong sign that you’re actually doing the best for your family, and support will be available to you, your baby and wider family if needed.
I worry I’ll never feel better
When in the midst of emotional turmoil, it can feel impossible to imagine a time when you’ll feel yourself again. The changes that come with new motherhood can feel particularly destabilising, bringing as they do, fundamental shifts to our place in the world, our relationships and how we see ourselves.
It’s important to know how normal it is to experience wide-ranging emotional responses to the changes you’re experiencing, and that these usually settle as you adapt to life with your baby. However, it’s also common to need some support to manage, whether from partners, family and friends, or professionals.
I can barely function, let alone find the right person to help me
Early motherhood can be all-consuming, it can be hard to know when you might need extra help, hard to understand what that help might be, or to find time to look into what’s available. On top of that, we know women are often nervous that they won’t be taken seriously, that their needs aren’t significant enough, or that they won’t get the help they do need, when they need it.
In the past few years, there have been huge steps forward in understanding maternal mental health, and more focus is being given to the emotional health of mothers throughout pregnancy and postnatally. If you feel you need extra support, your GP, midwife or health visitor will be able to talk to you in confidence in the first instance.
Sometimes it’s the people around us who notice we’re struggling, before we know it ourselves – It may be you’re reading this and know someone close to you who could do with some help, but you’re not sure what to do. If that’s the case, the most important thing to do is to ask sincerely how they’re doing, and be open to what they share with you. Ask what they feel would be helpful now, and how you could support them to access that help– whether it’s making an appointment with their GP, midwife or health visitor, finding peer support groups or getting some one-to-one counselling.
I’m having some really awful thoughts and feelings, and I’m scared to talk about them
Sometimes the thoughts and feelings experienced by mothers are confusing, shocking or unforeseen, so much so that you may be cautious about sharing them. Even if you usually talk openly with trusted family and friends, there can be something taboo about the feelings evoked by motherhood, some of which seem impossible to say out loud. It might feel difficult for family or friends to hear that you’re not enjoying being a mum, or that you worry you don’t love your baby because of your thoughts and feelings.
Professional help can offer a space to explore the depth and breadth of your feelings, in confidence, without judgement and in a way that feels contained and safe. This could be through counselling or a support group, or with help from a specialist mental health team.
I was ok when my children were little, but I’m finding things harder now they’re older
Women are more likely to experience mental health difficulties during pregnancy and the early stages of motherhood, but being a parent can be tough no matter how old your children are. The fact is that motherhood can evoke extremes of feeling – from deepest love to deepest hate, from wildest joy to the depths of grief, and everything in between – this can leave you feeling bewildered and conflicted, whether your children are two or twenty-two.
We know how deeply our own experiences of being parented can be stirred up when we become parents ourselves, and how family relationships can be impacted by this most significant of life’s changes and transitions.
We know that sometimes too, as mothers, we feel like our own needs have little space to be attended to, so we may push aside how we really feel, sometimes for many years, until we find we can’t cope any more.
Whatever stage of parenting you’re at, your mental health is a priority and you deserve support.
How could counselling help?
Counselling can give you a space to talk about what’s troubling you, to be heard, and supported to find a way forward. Whether you’re experiencing difficulties during pregnancy, postnatally or further along on your maternal journey, counselling gives you a confidential and safe place to think about what’s happened, what motherhood means to you and how it fits within the wider context of your life.
And, as we’ve seen, sometimes the thoughts and feelings experienced by mothers can be hard to talk about to others, which is where counselling can be particularly helpful. It can also be important if you’ve experienced PTSD symptoms as a result of your birth experience, if you’ve had past experiences of mental ill health or if you need a dedicated, reliable space to support you on your path to recovery.
For professional, affordable counselling, you can contact us here
If you, or someone you know, needs help immediately, you can contact your GP and make an urgent appointment, call 111 or attend your nearest A&E department. If you, your baby or someone you know is at risk of harm, call 999.
Talking about what’s going on with your GP, midwife or health visitor can be helpful in the first instance – they can also help you access the support of the perinatal mental health team, should you need it.
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