Only through openness can we tackle stigma by Eluned Parrott AM
I am very pleased to support the Time to Change Wales campaign, as I know from personal experience the difficulties that the stigma associated with mental ill health can cause.
I experienced post-natal depression after the birth of both of my children; the first time moderately, the second time severely. On that second occasion my husband and I were prepared and sought help early, but the first time it happened, the fear of prejudice prevented me from admitting I had a problem and made the experience much worse than it needed to be.
Not long after the birth of my eldest child, I began to feel that things weren’t quite as I’d imagined they would be. I felt anxious and doubtful of my own actions over petty things, but I also felt that friends who had children at the same time as me seemed to be coping much better.
I forced myself out of the house every day, but I struggled to drive, or even cross the road, because I started to have waking nightmares, like flashbacks of things that had never happened. I would see sudden images of horrific accidents, so if a car came towards me on the other side of the road, I’d see it swerving across the road and killing us. When I was crossing the road, I’d see the pram rolling forward into traffic. It was uncontrollable, and deeply upsetting, so I started finding excuses to not leave the house.
But despite all the difficulties, I refused to ask for help or accept it when it was offered. I tried to find other reasons why I was struggling to cope. After months of unnecessary pain, I went to the doctor and asked for blood tests. I said I thought I had a thyroid problem, or diabetes, or maybe anaemia and that was the reason I was so tired all the time. My doctor replied “Eluned, I think you’re depressed”. I was furious. Of course I know now that he was absolutely right, but I could not accept the possibility that I had a mental illness. I felt ashamed and humiliated, as if this depression was in some way my own fault, some kind of personal weakness.
I did go back to my GP and started taking an anti-depressant which helped me find a bit of peace. I was able to sleep again, and I stopped having nightmares. It took a week or so to be apparent, but it had a marked and positive effect.
I also got sent to a series of workshops for depressed mums, but I found these much less helpful and sometimes downright insulting. There were only three of us in the group, so it wouldn’t have been a huge effort to find out about us in one of the six 2-hour sessions we attended, but we were treated like units being pushed through a system, rather than people with individual issues. For example, I remember at one session our being bullied to take a basic literacy course to improve our self esteem. All three of us were professional women with degrees. All of us left feeling angry and humiliated.
I am now able to say, “I’ve been there, and I’ve come back”
When I returned to work after maternity leave, I didn’t tell my employer about my illness because I was afraid that it would affect my career prospects. Inevitably, I felt under huge pressure to perform as I always had at work, and not being able to be open about my illness undoubtedly made that pressure worse. I felt as if I was being torn in two – not doing enough at work and not doing enough at home either. Eventually I decided to tell my boss, and discuss ways in which we could change my working life to take the pressure off. I have never regretted doing so, and it made things a lot more manageable while I was putting my life back together.
Happily I did get better after both periods of post-natal depression, and although my experience of that illness has changed my outlook on life, I don’t think that has been for the worse. It forced me to reassess my priorities in life, and going into politics to challenge some of life’s injustices was one of the ways in which I chose to come out fighting. It also makes me much more able to empathise with constituents who come to me with problems, many of whom have had mental illnesses. Since deciding to talk about my own experiences, I am now able to say, “I’ve been there, and I’ve come back”.
...anyone who would seek to undermine someone because of an illness, who would take advantage of another person’s pain, has far deeper problems than I do.
I think it is telling about the way in which our society views mental ill health, that I was more willing to accept the idea of a life-limiting chronic physical disease than a temporary and fairly common mental one. The fear of stigma and prejudice was so strong that it prevented me from seeking help, or admitting I had a problem. In fact, this is the first time that I have written or spoken openly about my experiences, and while I believe it is the right thing to do, even now I worry that it will have an impact on my career and how people see me.
However I also believe that anyone who would seek to undermine someone because of an illness, who would take advantage of another person’s pain, has far deeper problems than I do. As individuals, it’s only by facing our problems that we can make them better, and as a society only through openness that we can begin to tackle stigma.
Eluned Parrott is Assembly Member for South Wales Central.