Are you pregnant, but starting to worry that you’re not radiating love, peace, joy – and excitement – at this new life growing inside you? Perinatal depression is very real… and if you think you may be suffering from it, you need to get help NOW
Perinatal depression, a common yet severely undiagnosed illness, affects approximately one in three families in South Africa, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. With the added pressures and social isolation due to lockdown – as well as increased anxiety about the coronavirus – many pregnant women are vulnerable.
We spoke to South African journalist and mom of three, Lauren Shapiro, about her hellish personal experience, how nobody believed that she needed help, and why she’s written a book to help other women identify the symptoms, get the treatment and most of all, realise that they’re not alone.
Lauren was excited to be pregnant again, but she had no idea how different this pregnancy would be
Soon she began to feel… different. Not joyful. Not content. She told herself it would pass. But instead of improving, it got worse. She realised something was very, very wrong, but she didn’t know what to do about it.
What followed was a harrowing journey through fear, paranoia, psychiatric drugs and hospitalisation. This left her defeated and hopeless, but with help she began the long and arduous road to recovery.
Many people have no idea that there is a medically recognised diagnosis for depression in pregnant women. Lauren often got the feeling that some people didn’t really believe there was anything wrong with her; that she just had to “buck up” and “be positive”. This generated a tremendous amount of pressure on top of the symptoms she was already fighting, and illustrated the need for a book to show people how real this diagnosis really is!
Experiencing the symptoms
Looking back, Lauren says she probably started experiencing symptoms from the very beginning. However, her first trimester had been bumpy with her other pregnancies and so they passed a lot of the symptoms off as “preggie hormones” or feeling low because of morning sickness.
“I fear that many other families – and their doctors – make the same mistake. It’s important that people know about this illness and its symptoms so that action can be taken to help women before their condition deteriorates.”
“A supportive husband literally saved my life”
“My husband Warren had his own emotional vortex to deal with: confusion, fear, frustration, resentment, guilt. I am still amazed that he didn’t want to divorce me, even when I wanted to divorce myself. But he was prepared to fight this thing with me, so we were on the same team.”
She says her family was wonderful, particularly with helping out with her two kids, who were two and four years old at the time. Friends also checked in on her constantly, in person and by text. It was a lifeline to her during the daytime when Warren was at work.
“We certainly had rocky relationship moments which are described in the book (#revealsall), and it took continued, concerted effort to maintain lines of communication. But we were committed and – with professional help – we made it through.”
One of the driving reasons for writing the book was to help other families to be supportive to each other during this terrifyingly common illness. “It not only explains what I went through and how I felt, but also my husband’s perspective and how he approached the situation. Finally, the book is filled with advice from the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) about how to spot and support PND.”
Unfortunately, Lauren’s gynae did not recognise the symptoms either
“My gynae, whom I absolutely love and had trusted with my previous pregnancies, was unfortunately one of the people who told me “I just need to be positive”. It was coming from a place of true care. She did not pick up that it was PND and offered no remedies for how I was feeling except for the heart-felt hug at the end of each checkup.”
Her psychologist (whom she was then seeing for work-related issues) didn’t make a conclusive call or take the necessary action even after Lauren told her she was afraid she could be depressed. “Later, working with a psychologist with experience dealing with PND was a far more helpful experience.”
As a result, Lauren suffered way too long before seeking treatment, which made her recovery longer and more difficult.
“People do the best they can; when they know better, they do better. This is why I am on a mission to share my story with as many members of the healthcare profession as possible: GPs, gynaes, OBGYNs, paeds, pharmacists, nurses, receptionists, cleaning staff – anyone who works in a medical environment with women should know the signs to spot. A kind word of advice at the right time can make all the difference.
Taking the first step to recovery
“When I give talks about PND my recommended first step is to speak to someone. Anyone. Many people are so confused and afraid they don’t know where to start, and so they ignore or suppress their feelings until they simply cannot cope anymore. Start with someone you trust: a partner, a family member, or a friend. They can then help you to make the right decisions for your circumstances.”
Medically, the best first step is usually a psychologist who has experience dealing with PND. She may refer you to a psychiatrist as well if she sees necessary.
“My psychiatrist was very thorough and wanted to rule out any other possible causes for the symptoms, so he ran several tests including bloodwork and an EEG which I describe in the book.”
PND is a medical illness, but it’s not quite as straightforward as some medical illnesses
The reason is that doctors and scientists are still learning about the ways in which mental health – and mental illness – manifests in the brain. Until our knowledge improves, psychiatry is still a very imprecise science. Prescription of medication is based on experience and good guesswork, so it can take a while to find the drug and dosage that works for each individual patient.
“For me, all of this was very scary,” Lauren confesses. “I felt out of control and afraid of the outcomes. It brought on panic attacks. It did took much longer than I’d expected to find a medical regime that worked for my body, while my psychologist provided mental and emotional support.”
Lauren’s advice to pregnant women who are suffering from PND…
“Please, please, please reach out. You are not alone.
Call a helpline, join a support group, talk to those around you and seek professional advice. PND is entirely curable. Help is out there. Take it.”
Through the Window: How I beat PND
Peri-Natal Distress (PND) can occur both before and after birth, as depression and heightened anxiety. Nobody speaks about PND, and so it continues to tear apart lives and families across our nation. But PND is treatable and curable. Through the Window is testimony to that.
This gripping, honest, terrifying and human memoir is supported by professional advice from the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, to help readers recognise and address the symptoms of PND in their own lives or their loved ones’.
What’s different about this book?
It’s personal. This book takes readers on the complete journey through PND, from pre-pregnancy through to full recovery, immersing them vicariously in the process.
It’s readable. Many women have experienced PND, but not all of them are able to share their story in a way that is accessible and meaningful to others. As a writer by trade, Lauren is able to do this.
It’s atypical. Many people have heard of post-natal depression but not as many may know it can happen during pregnancy as well. This book highlights this, whilst still allowing readers to understand the issues surrounding mental illness in general.