'Being in a psychiatric ward without my baby felt like hell': mums explain the importance of mother and baby mental health units

Mums share how an MBU would have helped them and their families.
Mums share how an MBU would have helped them and their families. Photo: Shutterstock

"Being in a general psychiatric ward without my precious newborn felt like hell."

They're the powerful and heartbreaking words from NSW mother-of-two, Gabrielle Micallef, who experienced postnatal psychosis after the birth of her son in 2015. Ms Micallef was separated from her little boy Joshua, who was just five weeks old, when she was admitted to the locked ward of the Psychiatric Emergency Care Centre (PECC) at Wollongong Hospital for treatment. 

And the experience still haunts her three years later.

It's why the announcement that NSW will soon have its first public mother and baby unit, (MBU) with six to 12 beds, thanks to funding announced in the state budget, has mums like Ms Micallef cheering. "Having access to a mother and baby unit I believe would have lessened the trauma of the whole experience for me," she says, adding that as a psychologist, she is acutely aware of the importance of the mother-baby attachment, and the way it was disrupted during her ten-day stay, alone, on the PECC.

And her experience isn't uncommon.

Until now, there have been no publicly funded  MBUs in NSW and just one private, 12-bed MBU at St John of God Burwood Hospital.  As such, mums needing hospitalisation for severe postnatal depression and anxiety or postnatal psychosis, who do not have private health insurance are typically sent to an acute psychiatric ward in a general hospital and separated from their babies.

PANDA CEO Terri Smith says the organisation has been advocating to the NSW Government for many years to fund public MBUs in NSW.

"We know from calls to our National Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Helpline that there is a pressing need in NSW for affordable inpatient care to support new mothers experiencing serious mental illness,' Ms Smith said.

Nicole Highet, director of the Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) also welcomes the announcement.

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"Women with severe mental illness may find the early postnatal period particularly distressing for many reasons and their ability to bond and attach with the baby may be compromised," she says. "The early weeks are critical for mother/infant attachment and this could be negatively impacted if mums have no option of an MBU.

"When symptoms are severe enough to warrant hospital admission, co-admission with the baby assists with developing confidence in their parenting skills and a positive relationship with bub."

Other mums, like Ms Micallef, who were also previously admitted to general psychiatric facilities after experiencing severe postnatal mental health issues are also celebrating the announcement - and reflecting on what it would have meant for them and their families if a public MBU had been available during their recovery.

"Potentially I wouldn't have spent one very scary and paranoid night in an emergency ward," says mum-of-two Bronwyn Jones, who was admitted to a general psychiatric ward six weeks after her first baby was born in April 2011. "I wouldn't have been left at admissions by an ambulance drop-off," she adds. "I would not have had another night in a fairly high level psych ward with a mixture of psych patients where I was running around talking to other unwell people until I was held down and sedated."

Ms Jones also believes she would have been more "accepting" of her illness had she been able to access an MBU at the time and the appropriate care. 

"I would have been provided with better treatment from psychiatrists and psychologists who actually had experience with perinatal mental health," she adds, recalling having to "plead" with doctors to understand that she had a newborn baby she wanted to get home to.

Kylie Lewis* who was admitted to a general psychiatric ward on Christmas Day in 2013, is still dealing with the ongoing trauma of being separated from her son.

"An MBU would have meant I would have been able to keep the bond between my son and I," she says. "I would have been able to continue breastfeeding, given the correct medication and I would have had the support I needed to reintegrate back into society upon discharge."

Ms Lewis was sexually assaulted while in hospital, and has suffered from post-trauamtic stress disorder as a result, in addition to postnatal psychosis. "I would have also been treated as a mother who had just had a newborn rather than just another psychotic patient," she says. "The needs of my son would have been taking into consideration and the needs of the family unit as a whole.

"An MBU is not just a bed, with the right support, care and encouragement I believe that a MBU is a safe place to heal without shame, stigma and fear."

*Name has been changed

If you need help urgently, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

You can also contact the PANDA Helpline on 1300 726 306, (Monday to Friday 9am - 7:30pm).

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