Hiding behind a smile: using my suffering to break the stigma

24 May 2018

Leanne Howlett – Everyone’s Business campaign champion and Chair of By Your Side service user forum and peer support 

When my son was born I looked like a mum who had everything together. He slept through the night from 10 weeks of age and I joked about how lucky I was. My social media accounts were full of happy photographs and I would smile agreeing how amazing my life was to everyone I met. The reality was inside I was falling apart.

I was over the moon when I became pregnant and, despite a horrendous bout of morning sickness, loved every moment of pregnancy. I had a successful career as a Solicitor, putting in long hours and meeting high targets and naively thought of maternity leave as a nice break! In those final weeks of getting everything ready for my baby I had no idea about the roller coaster journey that lay ahead of me. When I went into labour I was so excited, the midwives (I had four!) who looked after me in labour were incredible. At the final hurdle I was rushed to theatre for a forceps delivery and the second he was born I knew something wasn’t right. I remember lying there whilst they were checking on my baby, my husband by his side, and feeling totally useless. So many thoughts passed through my head in that first half an hour. Once I was in recovery I was sure I would finally feel the magical rush of having my baby but it never came. Over the coming weeks in horrendous pain, sleep deprived and struggling to get to grips with breastfeeding, the offhand comments from midwives and family started to fuel my thoughts that I was a bad mum and I couldn’t “do it” – whatever “it” was!

I remember the exact moment my midwife mentioned a potential referral to Psychology. I was in floods of tears but I very quickly scoffed that it wasn’t for me and brushed it aside. Weeks went by before I eventually agreed to a referral. When I walked down the corridor into the psychologist’s office for that first meeting I was terrified. Over the coming months I continually refused a psychiatrist, antidepressants and a Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) and became so unwell I was unable to express myself, this meant I couldn’t benefit from the sessions nor use tools offered to aid recovery. My mood deteriorated further and further until eventually I sat in my psychologist’s office crying that I wanted to die. Thankfully my specialist perinatal mental health psychologist persevered and I eventually agreed to take the antidepressants and see the CPN – all of which helped me recover. Now I look back and don’t even recognise that person I became.

Once I recovered I knew I wanted to help mothers and break down the stigma which is a barrier to seeking help. No one talked to me about perinatal mental illness, it wasn’t mentioned in my antenatal classes and there was minimal information in books. The reality is I almost took my own life because I wouldn’t accept the help available to me; yet I went straight to my midwife with my symptoms of pre-eclampsia. I couldn’t believe this was happening in the 21st century. I knew that if I could give others the strength and direction I was so desperate for, and help others in the same way that a precious few helped me, then something positive will have come out of all of that suffering.

Eight months on and I helped found the peer support and chair the brand new service user forum. We work in partnership with the local perinatal mental health team to improve the service with our lived experience, working to educate others, creating leaflets about the perinatal mental health service for prospective patients, creating an antenatal education film and conducting research re perinatal mental health service accessibility.

We are setting up a peer support service for families being looked after by the perinatal mental health team. The peer support will be by email, text, or on a one to one basis and a weekly stay and play for mums and their babies. I have delivered my story to healthcare professionals and I am so proud of how far I have come. I couldn’t be any different from that closed individual who sat in that psychologist’s office two years ago but knowing I am making a difference has helped me move on from the experience and turn it into a positive.

I am now also proudly a MMHA Everyone’s Business Campaign champion supporting the vital need for specialist perinatal mental health services across the UK.

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"Mental Health affects us all at some time in our lives. It is essential we act together to prevent Mental Illness." Torbay Council

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