We talk to Eve Canavan who suffered from postpartum psychosis and how she used her experience to advise EastEnders on the Stacey Branning storyline to raise awareness about maternal mental health issues
Tell us about your experience
From the day Joe was born, it was obvious I was very unwell. Within an hour of giving birth, my brain felt like it was shutting down and instead of feeling joy about having a baby, I felt scared of him. Once we were discharged, my feelings got worse. I couldn’t be near Joe on my own. I started to experience vivid hallucinations of being trapped.
My husband John took me to the doctors for six weeks - sometimes twice a day. But no doctor knew how to treat me. After scouring the internet and talking to the Association of Postnatal Illness, it was John who found out about specialist Mother and Baby Units (MBUs) for women with severe perinatal mental illness after having a baby. It was obvious I needed to be in one but our local doctors hadn’t heard of them and didn’t know how to refer me. John found out there was one in Nottingham where his parents lived so when Joe was six weeks old, and I was at my worst, we travelled 200 miles to John’s parents.
Once in Nottingham, my hallucinations became worse and I told John I wanted to die. He called Psychiatric Outpatients at the hospital and demanded that I was assessed. I was finally diagnosed with postpartum psychosis and admitted to the MBU…which is where I started my recovery. I should have been in an MBU from the day Joe was born.
You can read more about Eve's experience here.
What made the biggest difference in your recovery?
The MBU - if I hadn’t gone into one, I wouldn’t be alive today. My recovery started as soon as I was in one and it’s a disgrace we had to move to get into one. We need more of these units in order to help people across the UK.
How did you get involved with EastEnders?
I’m a member of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA) and last year I was approached by EastEnders through the MMHA to speak with the researchers about a potential storyline about postpartum psychosis. I talked to them about my experience and then a few months later the charity, Mind, became involved, as well as another mum who had suffered from psychosis. We went back to Elstree together to meet with the scriptwriters, researchers and actors who play Stacey and Martin.
What was it like working with the cast and scriptwriters?
Really good. I admit I was worried in the very beginning when they said they were considering a storyline, as I was nervous about how it would pan out. However, with the involvement of Mind - and EastEnders’ commitment to doing this right - it’s been an amazing experience. The researchers and scriptwriters have done a great job capturing the reality of postpartum psychosis. Lacey Turner and James Bye who play Stacey Branning and Martin Fowler were keen to know how the illness affects mums and other family members. Things which seem like small details have been considered and checked to ensure the storyline is accurate. My partner and the partner of the other mum involved also went to the set and spoke with the researchers and actors to discuss how the illness affected them and their role in our recovery.
What impact do think this storyline has had?
People think postpartum psychosis is rare and so it’s never ever talked about. I’d never heard of it and even though the storyline has only been running for a few months, the impact it has had so far is amazing. Women need to be told about the possibility of postpartum psychosis and how it is a medical emergency. It’s scary but with the right treatment, you can and do make a full recovery.
The storyline has also brought perinatal mental health to everyone’s attention. Postnatal depression, maternal obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety are all being talked about because of the storyline. A soap has the power to get a message out to lots of people in a quick, accessible way. I’m delighted EastEnders decided to do this storyline and anecdotal evaluation shows that it is having a positive impact.
What would you say to a parent who might be experiencing mental health problems?
It’s not your fault and you don’t need to be ashamed. Talk to your loved ones and your GP so you can get the right help and support. Be honest about your thoughts and feelings – especially if they are scaring you. You aren’t a bad person if you do have thoughts that scare you – remember it’s the illness that's causing them and the thoughts are a symptom. If you find your doctor isn’t helpful or doesn’t listen, try another doctor.
If you’re finding it hard to talk about your feelings, try writing them down. Sometimes putting things down on paper can be a little easier and you can pass it to your doctor to read. There is a wonderful charity called The Smile Group, which is a perinatal mental health charity founded by two mums who suffered with mental health issues after the birth of their children. They've made a GP checklist you can fill in if you’re struggling to talk about your symptoms and your doctor can then discuss treatment options with you, such as medication and therapy.
Always remember: it’s not your fault, you don’t need to feel ashamed or guilty, you aren’t alone and, most importantly, you will get better.
Find out about our #BeyondBabyBlues campaign, which encourages people to talk more openly about maternal mental health, to avoid the mistake of dismissing potentially serious mental health issues in themselves, friends or family and to seek help.
NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.
You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby
You might also like to try one of our Relax, Stretch and Breathe classes, which aim to help improve your physical and emotional wellbeing, as well as feel more confident and positive.
Mind is a leading mental health charity that provides information on a range of mental health topics including postnatal depression and has an infoline for support: 0300 123 3393.
#PNDHour is an online peer support group that runs every Wednesday at 8pm via the Twitter account @PNDandMe. Anyone can join in to discuss topics about antenatal and postnatal depression, such as self-care, medication and seeking help. It’s run by a mum called Rosey who also blogs about her own experiences with antenatal and postnatal depression, as well as raising awareness of perinatal mental illness, at PND and me.
Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP) is a network across the UK and further afield which includes women who have experienced PP and people with an interest in PP. It is a collaborative project run by women who have experienced PP and academic experts from Birmingham and Cardiff Universities. APP has recently produced some new patient information leaflets about 'Postpartum Psychosis: a guide for partners', 'Planning pregnancy: a guide for women at increased risk of Postpartum Psychosis' and 'Recovery after Postpartum Psychosis'.
The Association for Postnatal Illness is a charity that provides support to mothers suffering from postnatal illness and increasec public awareness of the illness.