On the outside: how to help those with PND

“I withdrew from friends and family, pretending I was always busy when they wanted to see me."
“I withdrew from friends and family, pretending I was always busy when they wanted to see me." Photo: Getty Images

Becoming a parent is the mother of all learning curves. It tests us in ways we didn't expect and often rocks our confidence.

There are days when we feel out of control, like we're not equipped for the job, overwhelmed by the responsibility and the relentlessness. Extreme fatigue and anxiety plague many of us in those early days. These are normal responses to significant changes in our lives.

When these feelings extend past a few days and bleed into weeks, when they culminate into a rejection of your baby (or perhaps the opposite – overprotectiveness), when life seems too hard, you're exhausted but can't sleep, you're anxious or obsessive, you're feeling trapped, crying or having panic attacks, then these feelings are symptomatic of postnatal depression (PND).

According to BeyondBlue, up to one in seven of the women giving birth in Australia are affected by postnatal depression.

How it manifests can differ dramatically from one woman to another. Some women cry a lot, some withdraw, some sleep all the time, others constantly worry about their baby's safety.

Although there is an abundance of information available to us that highlights the symptoms of PND, we often deny and shy away from help because we feel ashamed or embarrassed about our inability to cope.

Louise* is a mother of three children. When her second child was born, things just didn't feel right from the moment she left hospital. "My daughter cried so much, especially at night, and the noise of her cry gave me this uneasy feeling through my body. My heart would beat faster and my thoughts would get scrambled. The world I knew was all a blur. I now know this feeling as anxiety."

Louise's powerlessness to stop the crying and the associated sleeplessness made her feel she'd failed. As things worsened, Louise says she pulled away from those closest to her.

"I withdrew from friends and family, pretending I was always busy when they wanted to see me. I cried a lot, mostly when I was alone. I stopped being able to do everyday things like grocery shopping or even leaving the house sometimes."

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Georgina*, a mother of two, had a similar experience after her second child was born. "I felt like a complete and utter failure at everything. I was exhausted all the time. I was confused a lot, I lost track of time. I couldn't remember appointments or arrangements I'd made with friends. Decisions were impossible … they paralysed me, and often meant I just did nothing, because I just couldn't decide on anything."

Many family and friends offered reassurance that these feelings were all a normal part of parenthood, but that made it harder for the sufferers to admit their true feelings of hopelessness.

Nikki, a mother of two, experienced PND with her first child. "My husband never really understood it. He knew I was struggling but just thought it was part of having a baby. Especially one that didn't sleep."

Louise agrees: "My family thought there was something odd going on but didn't know how to help. When I declined their offers to come over and help me, they stopped asking if I needed anything. They eventually stopped coming at all and I stopped going to them."

Georgina says it felt like she wore an invisible mask around family and friends that disguised her constant state of distress. Once she sought help and was formally diagnosed with PND,

Georgina's family took some time to come on board. Her mum disputed Georgina's diagnosis and suggested she simply pull herself together. "While she did offer some practical help, such as helping with washing, and housework, her absolute disbelief that I had an illness was devastating." 

Viv*, a mother of two, also suffered PND with her second child but her family were very supportive. After a referral to a specialist mother and baby psychologist, Viv's dad looked after her two children while she attended appointments. Viv admits that during that time, "in those lonely times of feeling trapped, hopeless, and a failure", she would have loved company.

Nikki agrees, "To have company was something I really needed. I felt too guilty to have my baby minded, so if someone dropped in for a cuppa, it was really good for me."

For the people closest to those suffering, there is often a disconnect, a wall that is built around the sufferer that seems impenetrable. We are desperate to help but don't know how, especially if our offers are rejected.

Louise admits she had created a world where she locked everyone out yet she didn't want to be alone. "Looking back, I think it would have been helpful if someone had have told me that things could be so much better if I sought some help and then actually took me to that help. Literally booked me in, drove me there and promised me that they weren't going to judge me for what I was about to say.

"But no one was ever going to be able to do that for me, because no one knew that things ere that bad."

Georgina says she needed acknowledgment and acceptance without judgement. "For someone to say to me "Maybe I don't actually know what you're going through, and I don't understand it, but I acknowledge that it is really difficult for you, and I want to help".

Thankfully, all these mothers were finally able to accept that needing additional help was not admitting failure but asking for support and they all sought professional assistance.

For anyone suffering right now, know that there are people out there who want to help you but maybe they don't know how. Have the courage to tell them how you honestly feel and what you need.

Like Louise said, things can be so much better.

Could you have postnatal depression? Fill out a check list of symptoms at Just Speak Up. For support, advice and more information, contact Lifeline (13 11 14), Post and Antenatal Depression Association (1300 726 306) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636).  

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy