IT'S supposed to be one of the most exciting times of your life.
But for mum Kelly Smith, pregnancy was a traumatic ordeal that left her sobbing non-stop, struggling to eat properly and unable to shower alone.
“I had a very tough pregnancy with my baby measuring small and my OCD [obsessive–compulsive disorder] was terrible to the point where I couldn’t shower alone, I had to force myself to eat properly, I struggled to go to work and cried non-stop," recalls Kelly, from Falkirk, Scotland.
Convinced she was going to lose her unborn baby, the anxious expectant mother refused to plan ahead or buy any baby clothing – while spending a fortune on private scans. She also saw her relationship with her partner break down – she's now a single mum to toddler Eva.
"When she arrived, despite still worrying, I no longer felt the pressure on me and my body to keep her safe, which was like a huge weight being lifted," she adds.
Kelly, 32, is among as many as three in ten parents suffering from perinatal mental illness – mental health issues that occur during pregnancy or in the first year after childbirth – in the UK.
Though no-one knows exactly why such problems develop, experts have suggested they could be triggered, in part, by changes to women's hormones, difficult experiences giving birth and low self-esteem.
Anxiety, loneliness & suicidal thoughts
"The loneliness was immense, I didn't know where or who to turn to," says another mum, Sheena Tanna-Shah, 37, who felt extremely anxious and "like a terrible" mother after her daughter Sienna's birth.
But even though a soaring number of pregnant women contemplate self-harm or suicide, new research reveals only a fifth of perinatal mental illness sufferers – including men – seek medical support.
While some parents don't believe their immense suffering is a 'serious problem', others are worried they're simply not a good parent or feel guilty for struggling at what should be a happy time.
And a further one in five – 19 per cent – have been put off having any more children by their ordeal, according to the research from healthcare provider Benenden Health and Netmums.
Now, the organisations want to raise awareness of the issue – with mum Kelly saying: "I hope that perinatal mental illness won’t be a guilty secret but something that we can be open about and address without fear.”
Here, as part of The Sun’s Christmas Together campaign – which shines a light on loneliness and tries to help those feeling vulnerable this winter – three other brave women share their own experiences:
'I had horrific visions of my baby getting hurt'
Dee Featherstone, 32, lives with her husband Chris, 31, and two-year-old son Alfie in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. She is the owner of The Little Sensory Box.
Dee says: "I fell pregnant with my first child Alfie in October 2017, after two months of trying. I was excited, but scared at the same time.
I was already struggling with my mental health after experiencing a lot of stress and pressure at work, and I feared my constant anxiety might make my body reject the baby.
The first trimester was awful. Instead of being able to enjoy the pregnancy, I had severe sickness, fatigue and panic attacks throughout the day.
I cried a lot, and kept thinking my unborn son was going to die.
Because of my existing mental health struggles, I was already on antidepressants and under a mental health team when I fell pregnant.
However, after finding out I was expecting Alfie, I convinced the doctor to discharge me. I was scared being on medication would harm my baby [doctors generally try to avoid prescribing drugs for pregnant women in case they affect the baby] and I didn't want people to think I couldn't cope.
Unfortunately, this meant I suffered in silence throughout the pregnancy. And after Alfie was born, thankfully healthy, via emergency C-section in July 2018, my condition got even worse.
I suffered from horrific, very vivid visions of something bad happening to Alfie, like me falling on the pavement and his pram flying into the road. These thoughts were so consuming.
I suffered from horrific, very vivid visions of something bad happening to Alfie, like me falling on the pavement and his pram flying into the road
But when I saw a doctor – who had failed to go through my notes – three weeks after Alfie's birth, I was told I was simply a 'worrier'. Needless to say, this put me off speaking about my struggles again.
For five months, despite my husband Chris's support, I felt so lonely.
It wasn't until I went for a smear test and spoke to the nurse about my fears of Alfie dying that I eventually got help. She referred me to a doctor, who re-prescribed me anti-depressants.
The Sun’s Christmas Together campaign
THIS Christmas we are teaming up with the Together Campaign, a coalition of community groups and organisations, and Royal Voluntary Service to combat loneliness.
And we want to recruit an army of volunteers to support those feeling cut off, anxious and isolated, this Christmas.
Could YOU reach out to someone who might be struggling and alone?
It might be someone you know in your own life or community who needs support.
Or we can connect you with someone in need through the NHS Volunteer responder programme run by the NHS, Royal Voluntary Service and the GoodSAM app.
Could you give up half an hour to make a call and chat with someone feeling isolated? Or could you volunteer to deliver essential shopping or festive treats?
Go to nhsvolunteerresponders.org.uk/christmastogether to sign up as a volunteer.
You will then receive an email taking you through the sign up process and be asked to download the responder app which will match you to those in need in your area.
Don’t worry if you don’t get a job straight away, because jobs are matched according to the need local to you. Being ready to help is what really matters.
Today, Alfie is 28 months old, and a whirlwind! He lights up my life every day with his amazing cuddles.
As for me, my struggles gradually eased over time.
I'm no longer on medication and, though I still suffer from anxiety, I feel it's more in control. I've also founded my own business, The Little Sensory Box, which is all thanks to my little boy.
In the difficult early days of motherhood, I forced myself to attend group classes with Alfie, knowing it was what we both needed. One sensory class in particular – which Alfie loved – inspired me.
Now, I offer toy boxes for parents to recreate sensory play in the comfort of their own home. I never thought I would be able to achieve anything like this, but my son has driven me to succeed."
'I kept my misery & terror a secret'
Musician and bestselling author Rachel Mason, 40, lives with her husband Tom, 43, and children Layla, three, and Elias, two, in Yatton, North Somerset.
Rachel says: "We had been trying for a baby for more than a year when we fell pregnant with Layla in July 2016. We were absolutely overwhelmed with joy, and couldn’t wait to be parents.
Despite having mild morning sickness and some aches and pains, I generally felt well during the pregnancy. I even continued to record music – with Layla kicking me when I sang!
Mentally, I felt really good. But all that changed after Layla's birth. The labour was three days long and took many difficult turns, leaving me utterly exhausted by the time my daughter arrived.
Afterwards, I struggled to establish breastfeeding and felt terror at the thought of being left alone with Layla. Over the next few days, this developed into postnatal depression and postpartum psychosis.
What is perinatal mental illness?
PERINATAL mental health issues are those which occur during pregnancy or in the first year after childbirth, the NHS says.
However, research suggests they can last for up to three years.
They include pre- and postnatal depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and postpartum psychosis.
Parents and expectant mums and dads with perinatal mental illness have reported suffering from anxiety, depression, a lack of energy, loneliness and suicidal thoughts.
Others have developed an unhealthy relationship with food, struggled to bond with their child, and experienced frightening thoughts, according to research by Benenden Health.
Now, the not-for-profit healthcare provider has launched a campaign with perinatal mental illness charity, the PANDAS Foundation, to raise awareness of the condition.
The campaign also calls for new parents and those expecting children to have increased access and signposting to the support they need at a "very challenging" time.
Cheryl Lythgoe, Matron at Benenden Health, says: “Pregnancy and the birth of a child can be viewed as a wonderful thing, but unfortunately – through no fault of their own – it can be extremely tough on the mental wellbeing of parents.
“There is no shame in suffering from perinatal mental illness and no one should have to suffer in silence, which is why we’re determined to open up a conversation and remove this stigma and guilt around poor mental health at a supposed time of happiness."
For more information, visit benenden.co.uk/perinatal-mental-health/
It was horrendous: I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep, emotional but couldn’t cry, and overwhelmed with terrifying thoughts but convinced that, if I told anyone, they’d take my baby away from me.
Determined not to be seen as a 'terrible mother', I kept my illness a secret for six months. I told myself I’d get over it without anyone finding out, yet inside I was miserable and struggling to keep it together.
I was desperately lonely – convinced I was the only person to feel like this and that I was an unfit mother
Though I absolutely loved Layla, I was desperately lonely. Thankfully, I eventually decided to speak out and seek help.
I had counselling and was put on antidepressants, which made a huge difference. Now, more than two years on, I've mostly recovered, though I'm still on medication to help stabilise my mood.
Occasionally, my depression will break through the medication. On those days, my supportive husband Tom is even more wonderful than usual.
Today, Layla is three and a proud big sister to brother Elias. They're a confident, loving, happy and sociable pair. They love music – like their mum! – and each other.
Since my ordeal, I’ve been able to help others through my book on postnatal depression, Not The Only One, and songwriting workshop, Lyrical Light, where parents can share their experiences.
We need to take the power out of perinatal mental illnesses by speaking about them. Parents who are feeling this way need to know they're not alone."
'I felt like a terrible mum'
Rapid Transformation Therapy practitioner, optometrist and author Sheena Tanna-Shah, 37, lives with her husband Piyus Tanna, also 37, and daughters Sienna, nine, and Isla, seven, in Northampton.
Sheena says: "I fell pregnant with Sienna in November 2010. We were so excited at the news, but the first few months of pregnancy were hard.
I had a lot of sickness, which made my job as an optometrist a real struggle. I also came down with an ear infection and heavy cold.
Though I'd struggled with anxiety for many years, it suddenly escalated after Sienna's birth in August 2011. The delivery itself was difficult, and I received awful post-natal care from the hospital.
As a new mum, I struggled with everything – from breastfeeding to weaning. Because I'd had an emergency C-section, I had pain and mobility issues, which made looking after my baby very hard.
I had social anxiety anyway, so going to baby and toddler groups was a real mission for me. I also struggled to take Sienna out on my own as I was so paranoid about being judged on what I looked like.
My confidence was very low, and my self-worth even lower. The loneliness was also immense: I didn't know where or who to turn to, and this wasn't an area I could – at the time – speak to my parents or family about.
The loneliness was immense: I didn't know where or who to turn to
I felt like such a terrible mum. Everything seemed like a battle. If it wasn't for my incredible husband, I don't know what I would have done.
As well as Piyus's support, I found cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and working on my nutrition and exercise, really helped. I knew I had to transform my mindset – or face an anxiety spiral.
Today, I'm running two businesses – including wellbeing company Inspiring Success – as well as being an optometrist and mother. I also recently published my first book, Perfectly Imperfect Mum.
Seeing Sienna read it was one of my proudest moments to date. She's now nine, and is a thoughtful and caring little girl. She's also got a younger sister, Isla, whom she adores.
Perinatal mental illness is such a huge thing to go through. It can really impact your experience of motherhood and your relationship with your child. But it IS possible to come out the other side."
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