Coping with depression after having a baby

Posted on April 12, 2017 by Zoe Davies

Adult fingers touching a newborn baby's fingersHaving worked closely with the membership team at BVA for several years, I am aware that many members call on us to ask for support - whether it’s professional or personal support. A couple of years ago I had my own experience with mental health, so I’ve decided to share my story in the hope that others may find it useful.

In June 2015, I had a baby girl. Medically I had a straight forward labour and was sent home later the same day with a beautiful, healthy daughter.

What nobody realised at the time was that the Pethidine I’d taken, a common pain relief given during labour, had caused hallucinations. When I heard a baby crying in the next ward I thought it was my baby and that I’d died during childbirth. After that every contraction was taking me back to the point at which I’d died and I’d be able to ‘come back to life’.

I struggled to explain this at the time and when the drug wore off I thought I was fine. However, as I was falling asleep that night I had the sudden feeling that if I ever fell asleep again I would never wake up.

After three days of no sleep and caring for a newborn baby I still had no idea anything was wrong. I was focusing all my attention on being the perfect mum at the expense of looking after myself - to the point that the health visitor expressed her surprise when we went for my baby’s first weigh-in because she had maintained her birth weight when most babies lose weight initially. In contrast, I didn’t even have the motivation or desire to brush my teeth.

Recognising I needed help and support

At that point I knew something was wrong and that I needed help. I had no idea who to contact and when I did speak to someone they had never heard what I was describing before, then when they didn’t ring back I’d get more and more despairing.

It reached the point where, out of desperation, I rang the maternity ward where I had my little girl and cried down the phone to the receptionist, begging her not to hang up on me because I didn’t know what else to do.

From there things moved quickly. A community midwife arrived within the hour and told my husband to take me to A&E immediately. Once there I had to tell my story several times over as no one had heard what I was describing before – all whilst trying to feed a newborn!

The immediate support I received was excellent – the mental health support team arrived the next morning. They visited every day until they signed me off a week later with a referral for cognitive behavioural therapy.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the counselling whilst breastfeeding. I thought I would be fine to wait a few months but started suffering from increasing anxiety and then depression.

For me the scariest thing about depression was having no idea how long it would last. As it turns out I was lucky and thanks to a combination of antidepressants prescribed by my GP and the support of my family, I joined a gym with a crèche and started making sure we left the house every day. Within three months I managed to resume my new ‘normal’ life as a mum and could start attending counselling.

I took antidepressants for six months and attended counselling sessions for nine months until, at my final session, we revisited the hospital where I had my daughter to make sure I didn’t have any flashbacks.

During my sessions, it was identified that I had perfectionist tendencies so I learned coping mechanisms for managing my anxiety, including accepting that being ‘good’ was good enough. I still find the tools I learnt helpful in everyday life.

I returned to work a year ago and having gone through the adjustment every working mum makes, I’m happily juggling work with looking after an amazing, funny toddler.

Depression – the label

One of the hardest things about depression for me was the misconceptions - both my own and others.

During NCT lessons we covered the risk of postnatal depression. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought - I was a naturally cheerful person and was convinced depression wasn’t something which would happen to me. I remember saying at the time ‘if you get postnatal depression won’t they just take your baby away?’ That’s what I genuinely thought happened. The teacher was reassuring that the medical profession did everything they could to keep mum and baby together but I wasn’t convinced. Later, my biggest fear when I arrived at A&E would be that someone would try and take my daughter.

At my initial counselling assessment, I was told I had postnatal depression. I said I didn’t relate to the diagnosis because there was no problem with the bond with my baby, and was told ‘postnatal depression is what we call any depression which happens after having a baby’.

That made sense so I tried the term out on one of my friends. The first thing they said was ‘isn’t that when you don’t love your baby?’ From then on I felt more comfortable telling people I had ‘depression, but not postnatal depression, just depression’.

My advice: act early and seek help

My advice to anyone who is concerned is to act early and please don’t stop until you get the help you think you need. I had to keep pushing to get help initially but once the ball is rolling people are eager to help and the sense of relief is overwhelming knowing that things will get better.

In need of support?

If there's something troubling you, please get in touch with the 24/7 Vetlife Helpline on 0303 040 2551 or visit the Vetlife website for more information. You may also find the following resources useful:

Zoe Davies

Written by Zoe Davies

BVA Marketing Manager

Zoe is the BVA brand guardian and is responsible for producing BVA marketing literature such as the BVA member benefits brochure. She works closely with the CPD and Events officer on planning and promoting the BVA In Practice CPD programme and organises BVA’s presence at the London Vet Show and BSAVA Congress.