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For Aussie mum Gabrielle Micallef, postnatal psychosis consumed her first months of parenthood – twice.
It's a potentially life-threatening condition that nearly always requires hospitalisation, with the rare but serious mental illness affecting one to two new mothers in every 1000.
After the birth of her first boy, Gabrielle knew she wasn’t feeling right, but as a new parent learning the ropes she had no way of knowing what was normal and what was not.
“I felt my mood plummet. I became teary, felt very overwhelmed and had no confidence in myself to care for this vulnerable little human,” she says.
Gabrielle’s GP prescribed medication and referred her to a psychologist, but she continued to worsen. She remembers shutting down. She became a shell of her former self. She stopped talking and eating. Sometimes her thoughts were racing, at other times she just felt completely numb.
“I could barely function. Engaging in basic care for myself and my baby was impossible. I pushed my poor beloved husband away. The illness made me not want to trust him and my mind had me believing that he was doing ‘bad’ things behind my back and also wanted to harm the baby. I felt like an empty vessel. Unable to love. Unable to live. Everything felt bleak, black and meaningless.
“I was standing in a hurricane of my terrifying thoughts. My mind was leading me to believe outrageous and scary things. I remember believing that there were cameras in our house and we were under surveillance for plotting to kill my baby. I was completely detached from reality.”
Gabrielle received psychiatric assessment and treatment relatively quickly. But recovery was painfully slow. The scariest psychotic symptoms started to subside with medication, but she continued to suffer ongoing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
She felt exhausted, depressed and lacked confidence in herself and her skills as a mother. With support from friends, family and her church Gabrielle finally made it through the darkness. But it wasn’t her last experience of postnatal psychosis.
After a period filled with renewed hope and optimism, Gabrielle became pregnant again.
This time she was sure she’d be prepared – but despite all their preparations and awareness the illness descended again. Gabrielle again experienced delusional thoughts and struggled to function. This time she ended up in a psychiatric ward.
“It was extremely frightening and I felt like a prisoner. I wasn’t with my young baby and that completely tore me apart. I couldn’t believe I’d won the postnatal psychosis lottery twice," she recalls.
Gabrielle has recovered now, and looking back, she can take positives out of her experience: “Even though postnatal psychosis comes out of the blue and is scary, painful and traumatic, it is treatable and you can recover. There is hope.”
Postnatal psychosis is far more rare than perinatal anxiety and depression, which affects as many as one in five new mums, and one in 10 dads.
Gabrielle is bravely sharing her story during Perinatal Mental Health Week (November 7-13) to encourage new parents who may be experiencing anxiety or depression to reach out for help.
Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA) has witnessed a 51 per cent increase in calls to its national helpline over the last 12 months, and is commending parents for seeking support and starting an important conversation.
“There is no doubt COVID-19 has contributed to the increase in stress felt by expecting and new parents. We have heard from many mums and dads that having less support available has put pressure on families facing isolation, home schooling and separation from loved ones,” PANDA CEO Julie Borninkhof says.
“We have also seen more discussion about mental wellness and looking after yourself which has helped mums and dads recognise they may need help – and that’s a good thing.”
Sadly, not everyone is able to access help when they need it and PANDA cites five key barriers parents come up against when seeking help – they include language, lack of awareness of perinatal mental health issues, distance from support, a fear of being judged, and access to healthcare professionals.
For this reason, PANDA offers Australia’s only free Perinatal Helpline, community and health professionals Learning Hub and helpful resources translated into 40 languages for families where English is not spoken.
“If people aren’t sure what they are feeling is normal, or if they are seeing signs of mental health distress in loved ones, our website offers 24-hour access to our online mental health checklist,” Ms Borninkhof said.
PANDA recognises having a new baby in your life is not easy, but mums and dads need to know they are not alone. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed at this time.
For information about Perinatal Mental Health Week, head to www.panda.org.au/awareness/perinatal-mental-health-week. If you or anyone you know is having trouble coping with pregnancy or post childbirth you can visit www.panda.org.au or call the PANDA Helpline on 1300 726 306.
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