When Jackie Benjamin gave birth to her first son 18 years ago, the last thing she expected was a descent into manic depression. “I felt elated and euphoric, and so keen to write down all the details of Alex’s birth I didn’t feel like sleeping,” says the Birmingham-based lawyer.
But gradually she became more and more fraught trying to breastfeed, while the lack of sleep made her “so tired, I thought I was going to die. No-one mentioned they thought I was going mad, but when a social worker called, I did wonder if they wanted to section me or take my child away.”
Benjamin is one of millions of women who have suffered postpartum psychosis — an extreme form of post-natal depression so severe it makes suicide a leading cause of maternal death in Britain, and has even led some women to kill their babies.
Yet in spite of the fact up to one in eight mothers needs medical treatment to deal with their frighteningly low mood after childbirth, many GPs still dismiss their symptoms as “the baby blues” — a deceptively benign term for a condition which can be fatal.
It is one reason Benjamin — who, after failing to obtain assistance from two GPs, saw a psychiatrist privately and was eventually hospitalised — co-founded Action for Postpartum Psychosis (APP) in 1995, to help fund research and make information available to other sufferers.
By then she had had a second son — and a recurrence of symptoms: “But having been told I had a one-in-five chance of that happening, I was able to get myself as much help as possible. I hired a maternity nurse to be in our home before the birth, and was monitored by a psychiatrist.” When symptoms kicked in following the birth of Archie, a two-month course of medication proved effective.
A key point not noted by Benjamin’s GPs was that her father had a history of recurrent depression — “though there had been nothing to indicate it was going to happen to me”.
Significantly, there was also a history of depression in the family of Jane Honikman, the founder of the California-based Post-Partum Support International.
Honikman’s own upsetting experience goes against the grain of all expectations of Jewish motherhood. “I went into denial during my first pregnancy, and so did my parents. I now believe what we call postpartum depression may actually kick in at the onset of pregnancy, especially where there is a family history.”
She is convinced of a hereditary link because she saw the pattern repeat itself through another generation.
That first baby was given up for adoption and never discussed for years afterwards. “I eventually tracked her down to Denmark, where I had been an exchange student at the time of the birth, and told my other two children all that had happened. I made it clear I would always be fully supportive if they were ever in the situation I had been in.
“But my second daughter went on to deny her own pregnancy until I found out when she was seven months along — and although I wanted to help her look after the baby, she gave her up for adoption. I felt bereaved all over again.”
PSI now has a UK branch which offers telephone support and other resources, but it was her GP’s support that Manchester mother Kate Lurie wanted when she suffered depression in her first pregnancy:
“It didn’t help that my doctor had told me I was making a mountain out of a molehill. I thought it would all be wonderful when the baby was born, but it wasn’t. Trying to breastfeed made things worse — it was so painful, even the smell of Maia coming near me made me feel sick.
“I just wanted to obliterate this whole part of my life, before which I had been so happy, so I did mean it when I said I wanted to die.”
Kate’s husband Michael felt the need to get heavily involved: “I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to stop her ending her life.
“We did get medical help, but it also took me convincing Kate she would have to fight to beat the monster.”
Michael wrote a book about the roller-coaster months before Kate’s recovery in the belief that men can help their partners more than they may realise when symptoms appear after, or even before, the baby is born:
“I wanted to send a positive message that however bad it gets, the future does not have to be all doom and gloom — though I’m furious it took Kate to feel suicidal to get the help she needed, when it was known she was prone to depression.”