Mental health is still such a taboo subject in Africa. It’s so hush-hush, and nobody likes to speak about it because people are so fearful of mental health problems. If you do talk about it, people might not believe you, they might think you’re faking it or, in some cases, they might even think you’re possessed.
I was born in the UK but my parents are from Uganda, East Africa, and my husband was born in West Africa. So when I became unwell with postpartum psychosis (PP) some of our wider family really didn’t understand – which is why I see peer support as invaluable.
I ended up being admitted to an MBU after having both of my children. The first time was because I had PP, and the second time it was because I had severe depression.
My first child was born in December 2014. I started to get symptoms of PP not long after the birth. I remember being in my living room and hearing voices, and everything around me seemed to be heightened. We had a train track outside the house and every time a train went by it felt so loud it was as though the train was actually going through the house.
My husband was worried that I might have the baby blues, and that when I was hallucinating the sound of my baby crying he thought it might be like hearing a phantom cry. But as my symptoms progressed, the hallucinations became terrifying.
I could hear voices telling me to kill my baby and I was convinced the devil was speaking to me, as though I was being taken over by some kind of evil spirit. I told my husband, and we decided to go and stay with my in laws because I was so scared staying on my own in the house. I was becoming really manic and I hadn’t really slept properly since the birth.
Other symptoms included being on high alert, talking really quickly and loudly, and over sharing.
As the days progressed I remember there was one night that I became really aggressive. While my daughter was sleeping soundly upstairs I was downstairs and not acting like myself at all. I picked up the dining table – which for someone who had just had a caesarean was no mean feat – and I tried to throw it across the room. My husband and his cousin, who was visiting at the time, tried to calm me down. Then my mother in law called the ambulance. The police arrived with them too and accompanied me in the ambulance.
Once we arrived at the hospital I was quickly assessed by a psychiatrist and admitted to a general psychiatric ward. Of course this meant I was being separated from my daughter which really upset me. As a new mum I was bleeding postpartum, and my breasts were leaking, and that all added to the anxiety and fear of being without my baby. I also developed a blood infection which in turn heightened my mental health symptoms even further. Plus, I wasn’t sleeping at all, so I was put on sedatives in addition to the anti-psychotics they were giving me.
I was there about a week but, in the background, my husband and father in law had been researching MBUs and were fighting to get me a place in one where I could be with my baby girl.
During that time, the director of the MBU at Bethlem Hospital came to visit me in person. She was really reassuring, saying that they did have a bed, but, because of how I presented, full of angst and distress, she warned me that they might not be able to manage me because of the other mums and babies in there.
Deep down, I knew that one of the reasons behind my continued angst was being separated from my baby, so I knew if I could be reunited with her I would feel less distressed. So I promised that I would be OK on the MBU and, as suspected, things got much better after I was transferred…
It was the following day that I was transferred, and it was honestly like a lightbulb moment in my recovery. There were still a few symptoms of the psychosis, but things weren’t as intense as they had been, although I was still very paranoid and wanting to isolate and cocoon myself away from everyone.
Shortly after admission, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The psychiatric team noticed that I was more myself, but that my mood swings were really up and down, and my husband had noticed this as well. On reflection, my husband could now see that there were times before we had our daughter that my moods had become really heightened, but he just put it down to hormones.
After being discharged, I spent about a year under the care of the mental health home treatment team and continued having appointments at Bethlem too.
I also started taking my daughter to playgroup from the age of three months. People wondered why I was taking her so young, but I wanted her to be around people, and I needed to interact with other mums too. I’m glad I did it, because today my daughter is so outgoing and happy.
My MBU doctor also told me to look up APP online and honestly, at first, I was sceptical. I thought what use is it going to do speaking to a stranger about my experience. But when I did it, I was like wow, this thing I went through is actually a real illness, and I’m not the only one. I’m not alone in this. It took me a while to attend an APP café group meeting but when I did and I was able to listen to many other stories it meant so much. I also got to meet APP’s ambassador, Laura Dockrill, who was so inspiring.
I love the peer support network so much that I recently did some training to become a peer supporter myself. I want to be able to give hope and comfort to other women like the APP support network gave to me.
The need for awareness
Today, looking back, and having no prior awareness of PP before my diagnosis, I think it’s incredibly important that midwives are made aware of it and of the symptoms, so they can pass that onto families who are expecting a child. They often talk about PND but PP is so rarely mentioned. I honestly think they should be giving out information at midwife appointments so you feel more prepared and able to spot the signs.
Because nobody in our family had ever heard of it, it was a huge shock and a really confusing time. I believe we could have reached out for help much earlier if we had known about PP.
I have learned, however, that experiencing PP does not make you a bad parent – it is an illness. We need to ensure we give ourselves time for self care and stop putting too much pressure on ourselves to be perfect parents. There’s honestly no such thing.
So if anyone is going through what I did, don’t feel afraid to speak out and ask for help. With PP, the longer you delay getting help, the worse it gets. But once you get that help, you can and will recover.