For Deborah Vickers, becoming a new mum was a deeply traumatic experience. Now she is supporting other women who have experienced postnatal psychosis through a unique community, writes Elisabeth Carter.
Deborah Vickers seemed to be super-mum.
After her first baby was born, Deb didn’t feel the need to sleep. She took dozens of photos of her newborn. She was out and about attending conferences, baby in her arms, just a few weeks after giving birth.
But in reality, all was not well. In fact, while on the surface Deb appeared to be coping amazingly well with new motherhood, this quickly tipped over into mania, which for her was characterised by obsessive behaviour and worry. It wasn’t long before hallucinations, delusions and paranoia set in.
For Deb, a family history of mental illness meant she and her husband were wary of postnatal depression. But postnatal psychosis (PP) came as a complete shock. Frustratingly, the symptoms of PP are the complete opposite of those of depression, so warning signs are often missed by those on the lookout for mums who aren’t doing so well.
Deb ended up in a general public psychiatric ward for a couple of months, on strong medication and unable to see her baby. Unlike other Australian states, in NSW there are no public Mother Baby Units where a family can receive the perinatal specialist care the mother needs, while also maintaining the important mother-baby bond.
It took nearly three years for Deb to feel herself again after her first baby was born. But sadly, despite careful plans having been made, PP struck again after baby number two.
Deb is a Christian, and although her faith was her stronghold while she was unwell, some of the doctors and nurses saw it differently. “In PP,” Deb explains, “religious grandeur can be a symptom of the illness – meaning women think that they are Mary, or that their baby is Jesus, or even that their baby is the devil … Being in a general psych ward where they were watching out for these things, it made it harder for me to read the Bible or to have the chaplain come and visit. Some people thought this was part of my illness and that I should be more medicated.”
Throughout that time, Deb clung to Psalm 71, which speaks of being protected by God when in horrible places, and of God caring for children and infants. Even when Deb was away from her babies, she recalls, “It was reassuring that God could still take care of them and they could rely on him.”
While Deb had her faith to cling to, PP is such a difficult storm to weather. It seems bizarre that so few people know about this serious illness in Australia, and Deb saw this as a major problem. She wondered how women were supposed to get the support they needed to work through the pain of what has happened to them – the effects of which are felt for years to come.
An online community for those who had suffered from PP existed in the UK, and Deb decided to reach out to those in this community who were living in Australia and New Zealand to see if they’d be interested in forming a smaller, localised community. ‘Beyond PP’ was born.
Since it began in 2016, Beyond PP has been involved in raising awareness about this distressing condition. They are also active in connecting people with PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia) and their resources, which include checklists of symptoms, stories from those who have experienced PP, and a hotline for those who want to chat.
Most importantly, Beyond PP is about connecting women with each other. As Deb says, “The best healing comes when you have someone you can relate to, share your story with, and talk about the good, the bad and the ugly with.”
Deb is hopeful that Beyond PP is a safe space where women can share the highs and lows of their journey – from the strangely funny moments, to the grief of missing out on the first few months with newborns, to the difficult process of considering a second child after such a harrowing experience. She hopes that it will provide a united voice for the 600 women and their families who experience PP every year in Australia.
As Deb says, “Women are good at taking care of each other”, and Beyond PP is a place where women can do what they do best.
This year, Deb is participating in The Hub program at ADM. She will receive one-to-one mentoring, essential training and guidance to help develop Beyond PP. She is looking forward to seeing how God continues to use this community as an encouragement for women who have faced PP.
PANDA supports women and their families who are suffering from antenatal and postnatal anxiety or depression. If you or someone you know is worried about feelings or emotions associated with becoming a new parent, please call PANDA’s Helpline on 1300 726 306 (9am – 7.30pm AEDT Monday-Friday).
If you'd like to connect with the Beyond PP community, send them an email.