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I am a mental health nurse and I struggled with my mental health

Friday, 05 May 2023 Gemma

Gemma had spent her working life telling patients to reach out. But when she suffered postnatal depression, she realised she didn’t know how to do so herself.

I stupidly thought being a mental health nurse and having worked in the field for five years before falling pregnant meant mental health struggles wouldn’t be something I had to worry about once little one was born. How wrong I was!

How will I know what temperature they prefer in the bath? How do I change a nappy without getting covered in wee when I’ve not got a change of clothes? Where do we find the spare £8 million, we need for childcare for me to return to work? These were the practical things I was focusing on as the birth of our first child got closer. The mental health aspects never entered my mind.

“Suddenly I realised I was completely out of control in every aspect of life, living Groundhog Day with a never-ending cycle of nappies and feeding.”

Little lady was born following an emergency c section at 42 weeks, a relatively straight forward birth. We brought her home after two nights in the hospital and couldn’t wait to start our life as a family.

The health visitor and midwife mentioned ‘day 3’ and the fact it may come with some low mood and emotional changes. But that came and went unremarkably, as did the next few months. Then suddenly I realised I was, completely out of control in every aspect of life, living Groundhog Day with a never-ending cycle of nappies and feeding, second guessing every decision I made and struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I thought to myself, how am I finding this so difficult? Practically… not a problem. Lack of sleep wasn’t ideal, but I felt prepped for this as its all people mention when they know you’ll be having a baby! Mentally… I couldn’t work out why I felt so overwhelmed with every single aspect of life. I was working for the NHS at the time so maternity pay was good, family and friend support was good, and this was supposed to be the most beautiful time of my life. What was wrong with me?

Anxiety spreading

It wasn’t something I noticed in the day to day. I didn’t go to bed each night thinking wow I’ve been anxious today or wow I’ve felt really low in mood today. You’re so in the thick of things it’s hard to be able to do this. I had noticed I wasn’t enjoying the big things as much as I used to – family gatherings, days out, the sort of things I usually adored. I had become an over-thinker, and not just about motherhood. This anxiety had spread to day-to-day things. Did I talk to much when we saw friends the other day? I started opting out of doing things I’d normally jump at because I was worrying about the smallest details.

I’d also noticed weird intrusive thoughts. I’d be walking down the stairs with her in my arms, thinking what if I dropped her? I’d strap her in her car seat and imagine what would happen if the straps came loose and we were in an accident. These were becoming more frequent and intense. I brushed a lot of these signs and symptoms off, thinking of course you’re going to be more anxious, you’re now in charge of something so precious and so fragile.

Before I knew it I was back at work, throwing myself in headfirst. While on my maternity leave I’d been offered another job, so I took the plunge. Work was my safe space. I knew what I was doing here even in a new role. I’d always prided myself on being good at my job. I loved what I did and felt a sense of control that I had been missing for so long while I was off. I was now working with a much broader range of people both patient and professional wise. I often dealt with new mums who were really struggling with their mental health.

“Imagine a mental health nurse struggling with her mental health and brushing it under the carpet for so long.”

I remember a few specific moments with new mums where I could hear both them and me talking and all of a sudden it clicked. This was me… similar struggles, similar symptoms, I knocked this idea back a few times and laughed to myself. Imagine a mental health nurse struggling with her mental health and brushing it under the carpet for so long!

The reality was, having a little one had changed me both physically and mentally. I no longer had a lot of the coping mechanisms that had kept me on an even keel for so long. My time was now so precious that going for a wee by myself had to be considered self-care on some days!

Holding up a mirror

Over the next few months, I tried to hold a mirror up to myself when talking to new mums. I’d done some of my own reading, from a patient perspective rather than a mental health nurse perspective and honestly shocked myself. I ticked almost every box for both post-natal depression and anxiety. But how had I not noticed this before? Eventually I made an appointment at the GP, I accessed cognitive behavioural therapy through the local wellbeing team and was started on anti-depressants.

Once I reached out so much changed. I felt able to open up more to friends and family. I no longer felt that shame of struggling with these things despite being in the privileged position of knowing quite a bit about them, and I was much nicer to myself overall. Most of all I realised how many mums feel the same and yet none of us were talking about it.

After reaching out once and getting some help, I found it easier to reach out again and subsequently was assessed and diagnosed with ADHD. That's a whole other story, but one that might not have happened had I not reached out initially!

I had my second child in July 2022 and can thankfully report a completely different experience. I felt well prepped for the possible struggles mental health wise, was aware of the importance of reaching out, and trying to make time for myself where I could. Perhaps most importantly, I kept reminding myself in the hard times ‘this too shall pass.’

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