Would you go to the doctor with a broken leg? We need to talk about Post-natal Depression

Suffering in silence: Around 70,000 new mothers suffer from depression each year  (Posed by model)

Suffering in silence: Around 70,000 new mothers suffer from depression each year (Posed by model)

We now live in a no-holds-barred, heart-on-sleeve, emotionally incontinent age, where celebrities are routinely hospitalised for 'exhaustion' and every victorious sportsman or woman is inevitably asked: how do you feel?

Why, then, should it be that post-natal depression, a serious and debilitating condition, bound up with sleep deprivation and the massive hormonal swings occasioned by giving birth, is the mental health problem which dares not speak its name?

A study published today by charity 4Children suggests that as many as 35,000 new mothers are suffering in silence every year, struggling with some self-imposed standard of perfect motherhood, reluctant to seek professional help, for fear of being ignored, belittled or simply handed a prescription for Prozac.

Shockingly, the report identified that as many as a third of the 2,000 women surveyed by the charity admitted they were simply too scared to admit they were not coping – in case they were hospitalised or their children were taken away from them because of a perceived threat to the baby.

The report also identifies huge discrepancies in screening and referral for PND, with a virtual postcode lottery for timely diagnosis and effective intervention. The illness is a low priority within much of the over-burdened NHS; most primary care trusts do not even bother to collate relevant statistics.

Nevertheless, current UK statistics suggest that between 70,000 to100,000 women every year suffer from various symptoms of PND, many of which can be distressing in the extreme but which can usually be treated and alleviated very effectively with counselling and the appropriate support.

You only need to skim through the message boards of the myriad parenting websites to see that many desperate mothers are now turning to online communities in an effort to find help, support and advice.

One regular Mumsnet contributor has received 600 responses to a plea she made last week, suggesting that she was seriously contemplating suicide. Her original post included these lines: 'I can't go to the doctor. I CAN'T. I won't take tablets. I WON'T. I shout at everyone. I can't cope. I can't sleep at night…. I just want to kill myself. I'm supposed to be happy…My family would be better off without me. I know they would..'.

The Netmums site has a staggering 9341 threads on its PND support site. They include posts entitled: 'I really can’t do this anymore'; 'Medication not working, giving up hope…'; 'GP has dismissed as Baby Blues. Please help!'; 'Depression for the third time. More lost than ever'.

Thankfully, the responses, many of them posted in the early hours of the morning, are swift, sympathetic and supportive. For many women, finally admitting they cannot cope and knowing they are not alone appears to offer a glimmer of hope, to help them take one small first step along the road to recovery.

Overlooked: The report revealed serious shortcomings in the treatment of women suffering from depression

Overlooked: The report revealed serious shortcomings in the treatment of women suffering from depression

The Netmums site also has a comprehensive reporting and moderating process and well-displayed and concise instructions on how to contact the Samaritans or to raise the alarm should you read a post from someone who is clearly on the very edge.

The desperate new mothers, appealing to strangers in the middle of the night, are clearly not receiving the support they need. The 4Children report calls for health care professionals to wake up to PND. The problem is acknowledged by the Royal College of Midwives; they agree the midwife is the key professional to provide all the information women need during their pregnancy and in the days following childbirth.

Yet the RCM also acknowledges a growing shortfall in the numbers of midwives needed, as the UK birthrate continues to rise steeply, up 22 per cent in the last two decades, with the number of complex births, to older and obese mothers, also on the increase.

But will addressing midwife shortages really help 'Madlizzy' or 'Squiggletsmummy' or any of the other women too frightened to use their real names to admit they are not coping with the tumult and upheaval of a new and needy baby? Surely we need some sort of concerted campaign to remove the remaining stigma of PND, which is, after all, a surprisingly common, always temporary and effectively treatable disorder?

As 'valiumredhead' suggested to her suicidal cyber girlfriend on Mumsnet: 'Would you go to the doctor if you had a broken leg? Would you think it a bid odd if someone did have a broken leg and they were refusing to go the doctor’s? Because it is the same thing.'

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