A Flintshire woman who experienced serious mental health problems during pregnancy and the early months of motherhood is urging other new and expectant mums who are struggling to reach out for support.
Francesca Austen experienced heightened anxiety during pregnancy and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after the birth of her daughter Aderyn in 2019.
Instead of enjoying the first few weeks of motherhood, she had difficulties bonding and started feeling resentment towards her newborn baby.
The 29 year old, from Mold, was supported by Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board’s specialist Perinatal Mental Health Service, which has recently been expanded, with funding from the Welsh Government.
To mark Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week (3-9 May), Francesca has shared her story to help raise awareness of perinatal mental illness and encourage other new and expectant mums to reach out for support.
“My perinatal mental health issues started the moment I found out I was pregnant,” she explained.
“Having health anxiety, extreme phobia of needles and everything associated with them (i.e doctors, hospitals etc) makes pregnancy scarier for me and triggers my health anxiety along with generalised anxiety disorder and depression. It was for these reasons that I was referred to the amazing Perinatal Mental Health team.
“I received support to make a birth plan and after giving birth, I was fully supported and had a few sessions where we discussed the birth, my mental health, and anything else I wanted or needed to talk about.
“The first month after giving birth was a nightmare as I’d had a very hard 40 hour labour. When my baby was born, I didn’t feel an instant connection or overwhelming love, rather I felt just overwhelmed and almost mentally absent from the birth. I am so grateful to Kelly from the Perinatal Mental Health team for telling me that it’s normal to not feel the connection that is widely associated with giving birth.
“I was then stuck in hospital for four days, facing all of my triggers and not being able to be in a safe enough place (to me) to process everything and recover.
“It was after this stay that I started to struggle with the symptoms of PTSD. I was constantly waking up in the night thinking about it all, as well as having frequent nightmares. I was having anxiety attacks, intrusive thoughts and still finding it hard to connect with my baby.
“My relationship with my baby improved with time but it was at least six months until I started to feel more myself and the relationship with my baby started to properly blossom. My daughter is now almost 2 and our relationship is amazing!
“With the help of rewind therapy provided by the Perinatal Mental Health team, the symptoms of PTSD became more manageable until they eventually faded.
“I wholeheartedly believe that the Perinatal Mental Health team prevented me from so much suffering, which helped me to cope through the most extreme experience and change of pregnancy and birth, allowing me to learn to thrive and enjoy it.”
Up to 20 per cent of women develop a mental health problem during pregnancy or within a year of giving birth, while seven in ten women will underplay or hide the severity of their perinatal mental illness.
Francesca is joining other NHS professionals in urging new and expectant mums to reach out for support if they are struggling.
She said: “As you grow up, you’re told this narrative about pregnancy and birth, how it’s a hard but magical journey and the intense love you immediately feel the moment you see your new baby,” she explained.
“Of course that’s the story you want to experience, however that’s just not the case for some of us. Which is totally ok!
“It’s the most extreme experience you can imagine, whether it goes perfectly well or not. If you’re like me and have existing mental health problems which make normal experiences a struggle, it goes without saying that some specialised support is so important.
“Thanks to the Perinatal Mental Health team, I coped better than I could’ve imagined and the safety I felt from that support being there was invaluable to me and my family.”
The North Wales Perinatal Mental Health Service works closely with GPs, midwives and health visitors to support women experiencing mental health problems during pregnancy and the postnatal year.
The service has recently been expanded with funding from the Welsh Government, to enable women across North Wales to have quicker access to specialist support.
BCUHB is also offering perinatal mental health training to all its staff, and it is the first health board in Wales to set up a network of Perinatal Mental Health Champions, made up of staff working in services that come into contact with new and expectant mums.
Kelly Arnold, BCUHB’s Perinatal Mental Health Team Lead, said: “Providing timely and effective support to new and expectant mums who are struggling with their mental health is critical not only for their own health, but for the longer-term health and wellbeing of their child. We know that the first 1,001 days - from pregnancy through to a child’s second birthday - is a critical window of time that sets the stage for a person’s intellectual development and lifelong health.
“We cover a large area with a small team, so by providing specialist training to other health professionals and recruiting perinatal champions, we can help ensure that women experiencing perinatal difficulties feel well supported by all health professionals that they come in to contact with.
“We want new and expectant mums to know that its ok not to be ok, and if they are struggling that they can reach out to any health professional for support.”