Mental health, pregnancy and the NHS
17 years ago I was diagnosed with “social anxiety and panic disorder with depression”. It’s a mouthful, with no cool acronym for me to declare. As the years went by, with the support of friends and family, with online groups, cognitive behavior therapy and yes, even medication, things improved. I no longer needed medication, I ran my own business, I met my husband online, and after 9 years of marriage we found ourselves pregnant after infertility, but that anxiety and panic disorder would always be there, lurking in the background – under control, but at times of great stress it would rear its ugly head. I talk about this a bit more here!
I told the midwife this on the booking appointment. I wrote it in big letters in my medical history. I ticked all the boxes. I talked to her extensively about my medical history and my fears. Throughout the pregnancy I told various midwives the same story (I saw many, it was a rotating practice). I emphasised that I was getting more and more anxious as the pregnancy went on, that I was terrified of being on the wards, that I was scared I wouldn’t cope. I was reassured every step of the way and told that they had both pre and postnatal mental health teams. But I never actually saw anyone and was not offered any additional appointments.
On the day of my induction I was simply going in for a regular checkup. I was told I had pre-eclampysia and the baby would be induced TODAY. Right now. I didn’t even get given the option to go home and get my things. This shit was going down. I had a complete panic attack and I actually refused the induction for several hours. I was sitting on the ward where they had rushed me sobbing with my husband next to me telling them I couldn’t do it. The induction ward was shared. I was surrounded by other women and their families – many of them in pain and ramping up to active labour. I said I could not make it mentally in this environment. They promised me as soon as my labour was started I’d be in a private room and that they’d do everything in their power to get me a private room in recovery.
For three days of induction I didn’t sleep. 12 hours after my waters had broken they finally had a room for me. A nice private room to labour in, don’t worry, good luck and they waved me off, probably glad to be free of the weird old sobbing lady and her anxious husband. It was indeed a nice private room to labour in, all the mod cons and a beautiful view over the car park. You can read about my birth story here if you want more details. Needless to say it didn’t go that well, because I found myself recovering from an emergency csection 12 hours later.
But it was over. I had my baby. My little miracle baby after so many years of trying. I was over the moon. I was also broken, both physically and mentally exhausted. A csection meant I’d be in a bit longer, but I was already counting down the hours. “2-3 days usually for csections” they reassured me. Okay. Cool. I can sit in my room for 2-3 days. I can do this!
The next morning after another sleepless night I was moved to a public ward where I stayed for a further 10 days due to a Sepsis infection.
Now look, I understand the NHS is busy, busy, busy. But I know there were empty rooms on that ward. I was told it, I walked past them going to the bathroom. I was spoken to rudely, and bluntly told that they were for patients with special needs. My husband repeatedly told the midwives that I had a diagnosed mental health condition and was not coping. He was ignored. I was having daily panic attacks. I couldn’t sleep. I was having my husband walk to the bathroom to check that I wouldn’t run into other patients. He stayed there with me, sleeping in an uncomfortable chair and sacrificing his own mental and physical health too every single night. I couldn’t hold or feed the baby and it got to the point where I was barely even looking at him. I was in pure survival mode. The midwives had this big white board with everyone’s information on it. Mine didn’t even mention my mental health. New staff weren’t being informed and no accommodations were made.
I was crying daily and was repeatedly told that it was the “baby blues.” I sobbed openly in front of a nurse. I told her I couldn’t do this – I couldn’t cope. “Oh don’t worry, everyone thinks they can’t cope, but you’ll be fine!” Pat on the back, she gave me a hug, cheerio we’re off again. No one took my mental health seriously. I wasn’t offered anyone to speak to. I wasn’t offered a mental health referral. I wasn’t offered the room I was promised and it wasn’t because they were full – it was because my condition was not considered important enough to consider.
I don’t think those nurses and midwives were uncaring. I think they were stressed and overworked in an incredibly busy hospital. I think they were untrained, and saw the words “social anxiety” and didn’t understand the trauma that I was going through. Every day new women would come onto the wards, with hordes of friends and partners. Every day there were new nurses and new midwives – I never saw the same faces twice. The doctors were brusque and rushed and no one had the time to talk about my feelings. The very nature of social anxiety made that this bustling environment whilst I was in an incredibly vulnerable state both physically and mentally, was crippling me.
In fairness to them, people are not meant to stay on the maternity ward for extended times and they have no training with mental health issues. Maybe I didn’t shout loudly enough; maybe I needed a full mental breakdown to get some attention. Maybe my husband was too helpful, too caring and they felt I was being supported enough. He tried his best, but I needed professional help and something went wrong, because I didn’t get it.
When I finally got home I woke up in cold sweats and with nightmares, screaming “Please let me go home” every night for weeks. I’m 4 months post partum and I still have nightmares. I still have times when I wake up disorientated, half way between reality and a bad dream, feeling like I’m disconnected and hallucinating. My anxiety constantly ramps up and the thought of going back to the hospital gives me a panic attack straight out. What if I need to take my son in? What happens in an emergency? I don’t know if I will be able to walk through those doors again. 17 years of dealing with this condition have given me coping techniques – but I have a limit and it’s been hit.
I survived the Pre-E, the induction, the csection and sepsis – but it was the lack of awareness and support for mental health conditions that broke me.
I made an appointment 2 weeks ago for the G.P. to talk about my anxiety and panic attacks. I’m scared that she won’t take me seriously; like the midwives in the hospital, but I have to try and get back on track, any way I can. It’s only because I’ve been seeing her for years and I know her that I’ve gained this confidence. My appointment isn’t until the 12th September (over a month, that’s how long it takes at my doctor), I hope things improve before then. Wish me luck!
If anyone read through this long mess of words – thank you for sticking with me and I’ll update as I go.