Feelings of shame and stigma

It is common to hold high expectations about what pregnancy and having a baby might be like.  After all, if it is your first baby, there is no reference point – other than what you might hear from others, or the advertising you see around you – showing beautiful images of parents and their babies. When our reality of pregnancy or becoming a parent does not meet our expectations, it is easy to feel like you are failing.  New parents often try to hide from others that they may be struggling to cope, due to feelings of failure, shame, or for fear of judgement from others.

I felt so ashamed.  Why couldn’t I do this?  Everyone around me seem to be doing so well at this motherhood gig but I was really struggling.

Stigma and mental health

Feelings of shame and what we call stigma, also applies to mental health.  Here people are often afraid to tell others that they may be experiencing a mental health condition, for fear of what other may think of them as a person, or that they may be judged as being a bad mother, father or a failure. Stigma prevents help-seeking We know that stigma prevents people from  seeking the help they need early.  In fact COPE research has revealed that 74 percent of women experiencing anxiety or depression in pregnancy or after birth, did not seek help until they reached crisis point.

COPE’s research has found that one of the reasons parents don’t seek help for their mental health is due to the shame and stigma that often surrounds these conditions. Here, people may feel embarrassed to talk about what and how they are feeling, for fear it may not be understood by others or for fear of being judged. Dr Nicole Highet

Stigma and motherhood

Stigma around perinatal mental health issues may be different to stigma relating to other mental health issues because of the way it is linked to maternal identity or being a mother. As well as being concerned about facing stigma from friends, family and health professionals, women may also experience internal stigma, considering themselves a “failure” or “bad mother” for not meeting their own expectations about motherhood.

There is a widespread belief that motherhood brings happiness and excitement and that everything is easy or not very difficult. So, speaking about mental health problems in this period is much harder because the judgement is always much harsher. The subject of mental health in this period is silenced to a great extent, but we cannot act as if these illnesses did not exist. Dr. Alba Roca

You can watch Nia’s story to hear about her experience of stigma and how this prevented her from telling her health professionals how she really felt.

Watch Nia on the Mum Drum

Stigma faced by fathers and partners:

Fathers and partners in particular may avoid speaking out about their experiences or seeking help early, as they feel that they need to stay strong to support their partner, and “hold it all together.” This only places greater pressure on dads and partners, and delays them accessing the support they may need. Additionally, many in the community may not be aware that mental health issues can impact fathers and partners or may not believe they can be affected. This can make speaking up even more challenging.

Coping with stigma

  • It’s important to remember that you can be a good parent AND have a mental illness. Don’t let stigma stop you from receiving the treatment you need and deserve.
  • It may help to remind yourself that 1 in 5 people are affected by perinatal mental health issues — they’re common and you are not alone. There’s a good chance you will know someone else who has experienced a perinatal mental health condition, or supported a friend or family member through something similar.
  • Try not to isolate yourself. If you’re experiencing a mental illness, shame and guilt can result in wanting to hide away from your supports. This can compound how you’re feeling. Reach out to those you trust or find a support group for others going through a similar journey.
  • If you feel able to, share your story. Sharing your own challenges and experiences during pregnancy or after having a baby can help others feel safer and more empowered to seek help. It also helps to educate those in the community who may not be aware of just how difficult parenthood can be or the facts around mental illness during this life-stage.