Jo Leach didn’t tell anyone about her postnatal depression. It came on after her second child, Hayden, was born on Christmas Day 2011. With two children under two, she sometimes wouldn’t leave the house for days at a time. “I didn’t know what was happening to me,” says Leach, 41, who lives in Stroud, Gloucestershire. “There was this overwhelming feeling of being really anxious and panicky.”
She didn’t tell anyone – not even her partner or her mum. “I was embarrassed,” says Leach. “I felt alone.” Postnatal depression (PND) is common, and affects more than one in 10 women within a year of giving birth, but Leach did not know that at the time. Going to the supermarket or the park was hard work. She avoided crowds. “I was just surviving,” she says. “Getting through each day and keeping the children alive, and making sure they were fed and happy. I struggled to look after myself. I wouldn’t eat properly. It was all about them.” She lost a lot of weight.
Before she had children, Leach had always worked. She struggled with being at home full-time. “I had too much time to think,” she says. “I was on my own all day long with the kids. I wasn’t doing anything except looking after them. I’d worry about everything.” If the kids were ill, she would panic. She’d become terrified something would happen to her and she wouldn’t be able to look after them. One child hated going to her playgroup, so Leach would feel horrifically guilty every time she sent her there. She had always wanted children, so couldn’t understand why she felt so sad all the time.
In spring 2013, Leach broke down in an emotional phone call to her mother. “I told her everything.” She told her husband not long afterwards. “It was a relief that people knew,” she says. “I didn’t have to keep making excuses for why I didn’t want to go places, or would leave early, or cancel at the last minute.” Leach was referred to local support group Mothers in Mind, run by Home-Start, a community network that helps families with young children.
She remembers her first meeting, in a Scout hut. “I didn’t want to go. We all sat around and had to introduce ourselves. I burst into tears and said, ‘I can’t do it.’” She struggled with feelings of guilt and shame: many women with PND feel as if they have failed their children or are not living up to societal expectations of proper parenting. “Before I had kids,” says Leach, “I used to think about how I couldn’t wait to stop working and stay home with my children. And then there was this big shock of being at home, and realising that I hated it.”
Over time, the support group became a lifeline. “It’s peer support. So many mums come in to the group, and make friends and help each other,” she says. “Everyone makes you feel so at ease.”
Leach is now a volunteer facilitator with the group, using her experience to support other mums struggling with PND. She helps run two groups a week, and also assists with arts and crafts programmes.
“She supported so many mums online during lockdown,” says Tracey Edwards of Home-Start, “as well as completing two mental health training courses, and home-schooling three children. She’s an inspiration to every mum in the group.”
Such groups are a lifeline to women, particularly in an era of ever-constrained NHS budgets. Leach was given 12 sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy for her PND. “It wasn’t enough,” she says. “They got me another two sessions, but that was it. They said that if you still need help, you’ll have to go back on the waiting list. But I didn’t feel better. It would have been nice to do CBT until I felt better.”
At the group, Leach tells women there’s always hope. “There are people out there who feel like I did,” she says. “I want them to know it’s OK, and they won’t feel like this for ever.” After so many years of attending and then leading the group, Leach feels incredibly strongly about the power of community.
At Leach’s request, we arrange a spa day. “I never get to be pampered,” she says. The Greenway Hotel and Spa in Cheltenham offers her a complimentary spa package. “I didn’t know what to do with myself when I got there,” says Leach. “because I’m not used to that sort of thing. But when I relaxed I enjoyed it.” She swam in the pool, basked in the steam rooms, and had a facial and a massage. “It does you the world of good, doesn’t it?” says Leach. “I felt really happy afterwards. It was a bit of time for myself.”
It is a fitting treat, says Leach, because the importance of taking time away from the kids often comes up in her support groups: “We always say to the mums, they need to find time for themselves. That’s what the group is all about: a space for them to sit and chat, a bit of time for them.”
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