Hi all, so lovely to be here and in the company of such an inspiring panel. I’m Dr Emma Svanberg, a Clinical Psychologist working with parents and parents-to-be. I see people for one to one psychological therapy, as a couple or in groups, to offer support around pregnancy, birth and the early years of parenting. I have a particular interest in birth trauma, because this is so often at the heart of the difficulties parents come to me with, and co-founded Make Birth Better with my wonderful colleague perinatal psychiatrist Dr Rebecca Moore. We’d love you to join us in trying to reduce the impact of birth trauma.
Much of the work I do is to help people make the transition to becoming a parent feel a little smoother. Becoming pregnant, giving birth, becoming a parent….these things are enormous tasks and can have a huge impact on our sense of who we are and how we exist in the wider world. As a psychologist, my speciality is in a person’s mental health – but in fact many of the difficulties I discuss with people are much more around lack of support, isolation and social pressure. That’s why I started writing – on social media, blogs, articles (and soon my first book) – to raise awareness of the common issues that affect all of us when we become parents. I feel that, if parents were better supported along their journey, there would be less need for people like me. At the moment, we know that many people feel that their mental health is affected during pregnancy and the early years – one study reported as many as 80% of women.
But what is mental health? It’s a term that we read and hear a lot these days, but there’s still a lack of clarity about what it really means.
There are a lot of articles, blogs, posts & stories out there about mental health, and parental mental health. It appears that the stigma of having a mental health problem is lifting, and that there are more services than ever before specifically working with parents and parents to be supporting their mental wellbeing.
But for most people, you might read those articles with interest but think ‘that doesn’t apply to me’. Or perhaps you read them and think ‘wow I can relate to a lot of that’ but not know what to do with that information.
In a sense, ‘mental health’ is a bit of a misnomer – implying as it does that our minds and our bodies are completely separate (an idea going all the way back to the 17th century and Descartes!) However, both medical and mental health professionals are increasingly aware of the impact that physical health can have on mental health and vice versa, and that external factors such as our financial situation, our relationships and our social status can have huge impacts on physical and mental health.
The way we talk about mental health- diagnoses and treatments- can be really helpful if you fall into a diagnostic category and know about it. But for many people, especially in the perinatal period (the period encompassing pregnancy, birth and the first year), their mental health feels much more complicated than that. When does normal anxiety about an upcoming birth tip into clinical anxiety? Is your 5pm irritable outburst – the one that shocks even you – a sign of postnatal depression or just overwhelm? In this period more than at other times through the lifespan, anxiety and depression often exist hand in hand, sometimes alongside post traumatic symptoms. Disordered body image, eating and exercise habits are almost encouraged by ill-informed articles about getting rid of that baby belly. Sleep deprivation, part and parcel of new parent life, can lead to irritability, confusion and even hallucinations.
It can be really helpful to think of our mental health as existing on a spectrum, one which we all move along throughout our lives and even throughout our day to day experience. Mental health diagnoses are really helpful in ensuring we can get the support we need, but many people fit into different categories at different times. This is increasingly recognised, with researchers highlighting the need for ‘pan-diagnostic approaches’ and suggesting that we move away from diagnostic categories in the perinatal period, instead looking at a more general sense of ‘perinatal distress’ or the catch all term ‘perinatal mood and anxiety disorders’.
One of the questions I am most commonly asked is ‘am I the only one who feels this way?’ Despite all the information out there about mental health, nothing can really describe how YOU feel when you are struggling. For one person, postnatal depression might be an aching sadness, for another it might be an unusually short temper, for another it might be defined by bodily symptoms. By seeing your mental health as existing on a spectrum, you become the expert. You know what feels normal for you, and you know what feels healthy for you- and you know when you might need some extra support.
Next time I’ll be talking about what you can do if you feel like you do need support, and what stops people from seeking help. If you are reading this and feel that you need support please speak to your GP or another healthcare professional. You can also call the MIND helpline, or speak to the Samaritans 24/7 and there are many online support groups. If you feel that you need urgent help, you can make an emergency appointment with your GP or visit A&E. If you don’t feel able to do any of those things, please do try and speak to someone about how you are feeling, it can make a huge difference. There is always someone who wants to help you.