Did you know that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that doesn’t provide specialist perinatal mental health inpatient facilities?
Let me explain that in layman’s terms – it essentially means that women who suffer with severe mental ill health after giving birth must leave their babies in the care of someone else while they get hospital treatment.
With the birth of my daughter came the death of the person I thought I was. It was the beginning of a long spiral down into a darkness that would threaten my very existence.”
Imagine, just imagine, feeling so unwell that you need to be admitted to hospital, but knowing that in accepting that help, you will be separated from your baby.
It’s simply not good enough – women, babies, partners, children, whole families – they’re all being failed by the current inadequacies in the system.
But there are some out there who are making it their business to raise standards and offer advice and support to women who are in desperate need of help.
Michelle Bradley (34) is one of them.
The mum of three who lives in north Belfast not only set up and runs PANGS NI, a forum for women struggling with their mental health during pregnancy and the postnatal period.
She is also part of a team of women who established the Northern Ireland Maternal Mental Health Conference, and most recently, she became a published author with the release of her book, Pangs: Surviving Motherhood and Mental Illness.
And let me tell you, it’s a fantastic read.
I picked up my copy a few weeks ago to flick through it just as my husband was heading to bed.
“I’ll be up in a minute,” I told him.
And then I ended up reading the book from cover to cover in one sitting.
Michelle provides such an honest and raw account of her own experience of postnatal depression and anxiety and having been there myself, her words resonated so much with me, that I found the book impossible to put down.
I read most of it with tears in my eyes – Michelle talks about the conveyor belt of care provided to pregnant women, she describes how her husband, 34-year-old Eoin, was told to leave the hospital at times when she was at her most vulnerable, how her voice and wishes were completely and utterly ignored.
She spells out the terror she felt, the reliance on medication to fix mental ill health and how the woeful lack of help available prompted her to set up PANGS NI.
She also provides a comprehensive guide to the different kinds of mental health disorders and advice on how to treat them.
There was one midwife in particular who lacked any sign of compassion and seemed bored and frustrated with me. She made me feel like I was making a terrible fuss over nothing. Her ‘push on’ translated in my head to ‘You’re not doing this well enough. You’re terrible at giving birth. You are so shit at this’. I was in the middle of the most exhausting and unyielding experience of my life and the people who were supposed to be my cheerleaders became my tormentors.”
All in all, the book is an invaluable resource for anyone affected by perinatal mental health difficulties, whether that’s the woman themselves, their partner or even someone who is preparing for pregnancy.
Michelle, mum to six-year-old Alexis, Cooper (3) and 18-month-old Luna, said: “I had no-one to talk to when I was finding things hard, there were no support groups out there.
“I remember thinking I would find something on Facebook but there was nothing there either so I decided I would set something up myself.
“I didn’t think anyone would actually join up, that maybe I was the only person feeling this way but then 44 people joined in three days and there are over 500 members now.”
Opening up about her experience and her work helping other mums made Michelle realise just how dire the situation is for women suffering from mental health ill.
Over time, she has become more and more active in campaigning for better services and it was in speaking out about her own experience that led her to begin putting her thoughts down on paper for others to read.
“After giving talks, I would get women coming up to me in tears telling me that they really understood where I was coming from, that they could relate to my story,” she said.
“I really believe that by speaking about what I have been through it can help other women open up too and that’s so important when it comes to our mental health.”
The act of writing the book has, in itself, been a gruelling but cathartic experience for Michelle.
She continued: “I would write a bit and then collapse for a few days to recover.
“But I’m glad I did it and I hope it can help others going through a similar experience.
“There is a perception in society that depression is something you recover from, but it’s more like we all have mental health and we have to look after it.
“Just like we look after our bodies, we have to look after our minds as well.
“I’ve realised that it’s something I’m going to live with for the rest of my life, but I’m aware of the triggers and I know what I can do to keep it under control.
“The fact is that services in Northern Ireland are desperate, they’re not good enough, and I won’t stop until they’re better.”
I finally had the birth I had dreamed of, relatively calm, quick, and in water. I had panicked but with the help of my husband I got it under control and I bossed that shit. Here I was, glowing with pride in myself, love for my baby and gratitude for my husband. I felt like Superwoman. If she had been my first baby, I would have done it a hundred times.”