SITTING at her kitchen table, a pencil in her hand, Lauren Knight stared at the piece of paper in front of her.
An hour later she was still there, the paper as blank as her mind. “I’d try to write a list of what I needed to get at Asda and time would pass and nothing would have been written . . .” she says. “It was like my mind just couldn’t grasp what I was trying to do.
“I’m a very organised person normally, and if you imagine your brain as a lot of drawers where everything was put away tidily, this was like someone had come along and tipped everything out. I couldn’t make sense of anything . . . couldn’t decide what to do about things. It was paralysing.” Lauren is recalling the months just last year when her post-natal depression was at its worst – when the thought of starting up her own group to help others in the same position was just unthinkable.
Yet, the 29-year-old from Longstone is now setting up Edinburgh’s first parent and toddler group for those with the condition after discovering for herself how little support there is for parents caught up by it.
As many as 35,000 new mums, it’s believed, suffer from post-natal depression in silence because they fear the stigma attached to the illness and worry their children could be taken from them if they admit to it.
As a result, half of women seek no professional help, and in Scotland for those who do, disappointment awaits as professional services are rare.
In Edinburgh there’s only one place offering help to parents, which is why Crossreach, based in Boswall Road, has waiting lists which at times stretch to four months before referrals can be seen by trained counsellors.
Lauren knows how that wait feels, which is why she wants to help. She was told she had post-natal depression when her second son, Matthew, was 16 weeks old and she’d taken the renowned Edinburgh Scale – a test in which all new mums have to tick boxes about their emotional state.
“I just thought ‘I’m going to answer the questions honestly’, because I do think it’s possible to lie on it,” says Lauren. “And I think that’s because people are so frightened of speaking up because they don’t want to be judged. There’s such a stigma attached to post-natal depression.
“I remember handing it over and just bursting into tears. I scored 17 out of 30 which isn’t really high but was enough for the health visitor to be worried and send me to the GP.”
Matthew was Lauren and husband Andy’s second baby, but while she says she had a brief bout of the “baby blues” when Freddie was born in 2011, it was mostly due to exhaustion. “That way you feel when you’re just so tired because everything’s so different and new. I think a lot of mums get that. A good night’s sleep and a chat at the mother and toddlers’ group was all I needed then.
“But with Matthew it was different. The first eight weeks or so went really well. The breast-feeding was much better and I just felt more confident because he was my second baby. Then, when he was around 12 weeks, I got hit by the baby blues and then it just never seemed to lift.
“I was doing the things I thought I should to try and help it, like going to the gym and trying to make myself feel better by looking better but every morning I would wake up and just feel the same – it was horrendous.
“At my lowest point I’d be incredibly tearful for no reason at all. There was no explanation for my low mood. The smallest of things would seem huge. Getting the boys to playgroup in the morning seemed like an enormous thought and process. But I would put on a front and do it. People were really shocked when I told them later about how I really was feeling.
“I tried to deal with it myself. I kept thinking ‘I’m a normal person, why am I feeling like this?’ but there’s no controlling post-natal depression.
“My health visitor and GP were amazing. I was given a low dose of anti-depressants which I wasn’t too happy about, but as they said, it’s a chemical imbalance in the brain, if I’d broken a bone I’d have a cast on, or if sick I’d be taking penicillin, so I had to see taking anti-depressants as being like that.
“I also eventually got a place at Crossreach for group counselling, which was fantastic.”
But it was the waiting list to even get that counselling which shocked Lauren – so much so that’s she’s now determined to help other parents who are in the same position by launching the first post-natal depression parent-and-toddler group in Longstone, which is being supported by the national post-natal depression charity Pandas Foundation.
“Crossreach is great but counselling is not for everyone,” she says. “I got to hear other people’s stories and realise I wasn’t alone, but not everyone wants to talk about it. I looked to see what other support groups there were and I came across the Pandas Foundation, which is based in England. The only one they have in Scotland is in Glasgow but they were looking for people to start up groups.
“Pandas have been very supportive. I was involved in my local mothers and toddlers group and so I thought something similar but for parents suffering post-natal depression would be great.”
She adds: “If you’ve not experienced post-natal depression then it’s really hard to explain it. I’d heard about it of course, but always just thought sufferers should give themselves a shake and get on with it, but it’s just not like that.
“I’m a normal person. I work as a residential childcare worker, my husband Andy is very supportive, my mum’s a midwife, I’ve a close group of friends, and yet I was suffering from post-natal depression. There’s such a relief in speaking to others going through it, who can understand it. Which is why I think a group like this, where parents can come with their children, is really needed – and I hope other parents think about doing the same thing in other parts of Edinburgh.
“Talking about it really helps and I really hope we can help break down the stigma of post-natal depression.”
• Edinburgh Pandas Support Group will launch on April 23 and run on Wednesdays from 10am to noon at Junior Bears soft play in Longstone. Donations of toys suitable for under fives are sought. Contact Lauren by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Facebook page facebook.com/edinburghpandas
‘I would sit and stare into space for hours’
HELPING Lauren set up the first Edinburgh Pandas Support Group is her school friend Sian Southwell, who also suffered from post-natal depression after the birth of her son, Rhys, six years ago.
Sian, from Stenhouse, says: “It was really bad. My husband Chris says I would sit there and just stare into space for hours. I had no idea what was wrong.
“I was just so anxious about everything which would then leave me depressed. I wouldn’t take Rhys on a bus, and had to force myself to take him out anywhere. I felt like I had massive fears about what might happen, I would think the worst about everything. My mind would run away with itself until I was too paralysed to do anything.
“But I didn’t really speak about it because I was worried what people would think.”
Like Lauren, it was the Edinburgh Scale which identified Sian’s problem. “I took Rhys for his six-month check-up and did the test and my health visitor said I had post-natal depression. My GP referred me to Crossreach for one-to-one counselling but my first appointment was about three months after the diagnosis because the waiting list is so long and it’s the only type of thing like that in Edinburgh.”
She adds: “I had my family and friends and my husband, but it was hard for people to relate to how I felt, so I felt very alone.
“I think if there had been a group like the one Lauren’s setting up it would have helped me so much to know I wasn’t alone, and perhaps it would have been possible to swap tips on dealing with it with other parents.
“For instance, when I went for counselling I had a diary and would mark my days out of ten as to how I felt and how my nerves were doing, so I could see progress and also what was happening to make me feel I had a good day.”
Sian, 29, worried about post-natal depression when she was pregnant with Lydia, who is now three. “I did get it again, but not as bad because I knew how to deal with it. And also, by the time I had my second baby most of my friends were also having children – which wasn’t the case when I had Rhys – so I had more people to talk to and more places to go.
“That’s what I hope this new group will do – give them somewhere to talk about what’s happening to them. There’s such a stigma attached to post-natal depression, that you can’t cope with being a parent, but it’s not about that at all.”