Trigger warning: this piece contains mentions of suicide. Please remember that this is Helen’s story, and everyone’s experience is different. Take care of yourself when reading this and if you are struggling, please refer to our Urgent Warning.
When life is difficult, Samaritans are here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at email@example.com, or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch. Suicide is preventable.
In 2016, when Helen Birch was eight weeks pregnant, she lost her partner to suicide. ‘Something affected him,’ she says. ‘I’ll never know what it is because he’s the only person who can answer that.’ We know from the Samaritans that ‘suicide is extremely complex and most of the time there is no single event or factor that leads someone to take their own life.’ Helen had a six-year-old, an 11-month-old and the rest of her pregnancy to get through. But the weight of the enormous loss and trauma affected her. She didn’t look after herself and ended up in hospital with malnutrition. ‘I felt like my whole body just shut down,’ she says. ‘It was a horrific, surreal time. I just felt so isolated.’
When Helen was put under the care of the local specialist perinatal mental health team, things slowly started to turn around. ‘They were an absolute godsend,’ she says. ‘They supported me in so many ways.’
‘Perinatal teams can offer support through pregnancy and up to 1-2 years postnatally,’ Dr Rebecca Moore, perinatal psychiatrist and founder of Make Birth Better, tells Motherdom. ‘They offer all types of support, such as when you see a doctor in the clinic, have visits at home by specialist nurses or see a psychologist for therapy.’
Helen firmly believes that the care she received from the team got her through her pregnancy, which she found extremely difficult. ‘I called the bump “it,”’ she admits. ‘I didn’t look at it, talk to it, wash it… the only time I remembered I was pregnant was when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a mirror, or had to go for medical appointments.’
Of course, trauma can manifest in many different ways. ‘Often, trauma makes us and the world around us feel unsafe, so being pregnant during or after trauma can make the mum-to-be feel anxious or afraid,’ Rebecca says.
Helen describes what the perinatal mental health team gave her as a ‘tool kit.’ ‘It gave me the ability to cope, to get through each day,’ she says. ‘Silence is the loudest scream when it comes to mental health, but they were able to hear the words I wasn’t saying.’
Part of Helen’s recovery process involved writing down all her thoughts in a book given to her by her friend. ‘I wrote diary entries, poetry and letters to my partner. It freed up space in my head,’ she says. She also tried to help others by setting up a Facebook group for parents who had been through something similar. And from that grew Helen’s ultimate dream: what she calls a ‘one-stop shop’ for parents going through trauma or a difficult pregnancy. Basically, she wants to give them what she didn’t have access to herself.
‘As a single parent I couldn’t access counselling because nobody wanted to see me with children,’ she explains. ‘I wanted my 11-month-old to socialise, but going to a playgroup in that mental state was horrendous. Small talk was really difficult and made me angry; I would burst out crying at any point. I want to create a “safe space” playgroup where all parents are going through similar experiences, where the kids are looked after, with a breakout room for counselling sessions.’
Today, five years after losing her partner, Helen is studying for a Master’s degree, and is dedicated to removing the stigma and shame that’s still associated with suicide.
If you’re struggling with your mental health during pregnancy and feel like you’ve got no support, Rebecca recommends trying to begin a conversation with somebody. ‘It can feel so scary to ask for help, or to try to explain how you’re feeling,’ she says. ‘But there is support there. Try to talk to a friend, partner, GP or health visitor, or share your feelings online or in a peer forum. As a society, we need to check in on our pregnant friends.’
It can help to have support during perinatal appointments, so ask a family member or friend to go with you. Helen can testify to the importance of having good support after the loss of a loved one to suicide. ‘It can enable those left behind to live a functioning life and be empowered, to take things forward and fight for change,’ she says. ‘With the right support, you can be a bigger, better, stronger person.’