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Diet & Nutrition

When the mother fails to thrive

Postnatal depression strikes one in seven women but why is it still a dark secret?

By Danielle Colley
There are a myriad of triggers for postnatal depression, but sometimes it’s an intangible thing that creates the spiral of hopelessness that afflicts one in seven new mothers.
Traumatic birth, or a birth not going to plan, isolation, financial worries, lack of support and fears of being an imperfect mother are all common issues discussed when women with postnatal depression break their silence.
“In hindsight I think I’m a perfect candidate for postnatal depression,” tells author of Cooker and a Looker, Amanda Smyth. “I went from an off-farm job, to being incredibly isolated on the farm. I’d had no experience with babies, Lilly’s nappy was the first I’d ever changed, and I also had a really traumatic birth.”
Living rurally, an hour out of Brisbane where her family support was, made the first six months of Lilly’s life hard but Amanda didn’t realise just how bleak she felt initially.
“I went in to quit my job with the police, and she got squawky in an environment that’s not super baby friendly so I went and sat in the car to feed her and I realised that all of the stuff that I was really, really good at was out of my life and I was left with this thing that I wasn’t very good at looking after. I felt like I was failing and I could see no upside in what was left in my life.”
A phone call to a depression hotline steered the new mum in the right direction, but she didn’t seek medical treatment so she feels that her PND dragged on much longer than it should have.
“I started walking for exercise and getting out more like the person at the hotline recommended, but after my doctor changed an appointment I never booked another one. I got better but it took a long time. A few years later when my brother, David, died I felt the darkness creeping in again and I got help straight away. This time with some anti-anxiety medication and a mental health plan I felt like I was in control in just a matter of weeks.”
Postnatal depression is non-discriminant. Whether it’s your first baby or your tenth it can strike and it doesn’t only affect mums, it can affect partners too.
Paige Chambers* got off to a fairly normal start with her first-born son but it seemed that he could not get enough to eat.
“Gus fed constantly and slept rarely. By rarely, I mean 20 minutes at a time, so five minutes of holding my breath next to the cot, five minutes creeping back to bed, 10 minutes in bed, start again, feeding and settling,” Paige recalls.
“He screamed all the time. We basically had to hold him, rock him, feed him or push him in the pram at break neck speed. I could see my partner drowning but I couldn't save us all, he was an adult, the baby was a baby. I let him drown and I know it. I have apologised. I love him deeply but I couldn't save everyone.”
Paige, who was close to breaking point, was one question off testing positive for PND, but her husband was not so lucky.
After visiting five doctors and sleep specialists over the years of sleepless torture, when Gus was two and a half he was diagnosed with severe reflux and sleep apnoea, plus periodic leg spasm dues to exhaustion. Finally, some answers, correct treatment and the family could rebuild.
The darkness doesn’t always strike after the baby’s arrival, with as many as one in ten women suffering either depression or anxiety during their pregnancy, which does not bode well for those early months where the rounds of feeding and sleeplessness can get even the most resilient person down.
“We don’t refer to postnatal depression, but to perinatal which is during and post pregnancy,” tells CEO of Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA), Terri Smith. “There is an overwhelming stigma that still exists in our community that surrounds mental health. If a new mum broke her arm her community would scrabble to help her but people don’t step out with the same confidence to share an experience with depression or anxiety.”
Often, mum’s delay in seeking help and sometimes she doesn’t recognise the symptoms as she’s too busy surviving with a new baby so it’s important to battle PND as a community and encourage anyone struggling to seek advice.
“Depression and anxiety can leave mums feeling desperate. Not a day goes by when we don’t chat to someone who has seriously thought about harming herself,” shares Terri.
“No one is judged on the healthline. There is nothing we haven’t heard. We understand it’s not about what someone thinks, it’s not who they are. It’s about an illness.”
As common as PND is, the good news is very recoverable. As with most illnesses it’s about recognising symptoms and getting help as soon as possible.
“For some people the journey to recovery begins when you unburden your story. Having the right language to speak with your GP, a proper plan in place and the right medication if you need it is usually all it takes to help people find their balance again.”

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