Torturing new mothers and then wondering why they get mentally ill.

This is the essence of what happened to me as a young mother:

“Torturing new mothers? Who does that? Well, as a society, we all do. I’m not kidding, I’m perfectly serious, and I’m going to stop mincing my words and say it how it is. We torture mothers.

Sleep deprivation is a method of torture that has been used for at least 500 years, and is still used today. It was used extensively in Guantanamo Bay. The difference between sleep deprivation in Guantanamo bay and in new mothers is that no-one is systematically and intentionally hurting new mothers. But the effect is the same. Sleep torture is designed to create psychological changes, which are supposed to encourage the victim to submit, to lose their sense of reality, and to talk.

Chronic sleep deprivation is not good for you. It leads to cognitive impairment, anger and irritability, anxiety, and even psychosis.  Yes, you read that right. Chronic sleep deprivation is known to cause psychosis. Puerperal psychosis in new mothers is not common thankfully, but it is dangerous.  I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few study days on perinatal mental health recently, and they have all included really valuable talks by people who have recovered from severe postnatal depression, post traumatic stress disorder and psychosis. What I noticed was that they all had one thing in common . They all mentioned lack of sleep as a factor in their illness. The lovelySinead Willis talked about “lack of sleep started to catch up with me….I couldn’t sleep more than an hour at night and I became very disorientated”. One of the effects of sleep deprivation is disorientation, or a feeling of “altered reality”. At another talk I was lucky enough to hear, the mother told us that she hadn’t slept at all for the first three days of her baby’s life, but no one noticed, because she was in a private hospital room on her own. She developed psychosis within a matter of days.  Elaine Hanzak, author of “Eyes without sparkle” talks about the fact that during her treatment, she would look forward to her Electro-Convulsive Therapy sessions, because “they have to put you to sleep first….bliss”.

Chronic sleep deprivation is when you have no opportunity to make up your sleep debt. You go on, night after night, suffering from not enough sleep. Acute sleep deprivation is when you lose sleep for one night, but you can then catch up. Even acute sleep deprivation has a marked effect on our mental health. In one study by Walker and colleagues, healthy young students were split into two groups. One group were sleep deprived, the other group slept normally.  The next day, both groups were shown disturbing, upsetting and gory pictures. The researchers found that there were significant differences in the brain activity of the two groups, as measured by MRI scans. The sleep deprived group showed reactions similar to anxiety reactions. Their amygdala lit up like an alarm bell to the disturbing images, firing off stress hormones, whilst the normal group’s brain showed a more balanced reaction, with the parts of the brain that “panic and worry” being balanced by the part of the brain that “reasons and rationalises”. In the sleep deprived group, their ability to process and mediate the anxiety was damaged.

People have always thought that anxiety and depression causes disturbed sleep. But this research suggests that lack of sleep can cause anxiety.  All on its own, and in only one night.  Whilst new mums aren’t shown disturbing images by scientists, they do have disturbing images all of their own. Worries and concerns about the baby, feelings of guilt, not being good enough, intrusions of hurting the baby, concerns about baby’s feeding, and so on. And of course, once anxiety sets in, it becomes more difficult to sleep, increasing the chances of depression setting in, and a vicious cycle begins with a force of its own.

With all this in mind, is it any wonder that we have such high rates of anxiety, depression, and psychosis postnatally? Women usually give birth overnight, sometimes over two or three nights. They are then put in a busy maternity ward with lights on, other women and babies crying, constant interruptions from staff and so on. Or they are sent home alone with just a very tired husband. Either way, they have a baby with them, who they need to keep alive, learn to feed, and look after. On no sleep.  Then, when the father goes back to work after his 2 weeks of paternity leave, it is perfectly acceptable in our society for her to say “I’ll do the night feeds, because you have to work all day”. She isn’t understanding the value, the necessity, of her sleep for her mental health. Neither is the father, or the health visitor, or society in general.   Her sleep debt builds, increasing the risk to her mental health.

In other cultures, mums are made to rest, recuperate, stay in bed, and do nothing but get to know baby. They are fed, washed, pampered with hot stone massages, and so on. Almost all non-westernised cultures have a ritual similar to this, which lasts about 40 days.  In the West, mums are not made to rest. They are expected to go on as normal, with the washing, the school run, losing baby weight, going shopping and so on.  Mums are told “sleep when baby sleeps”. However, this simply is not good enough. Because mum needs to eat, and she needs to shower, and she needs to get dressed sometimes, and she needs to go to see the health visitor and have baby weighed, and baby might only sleep for 20 minutes at a time. Then, when dad goes back to work, it gets even more chronic, because she offers to do the night feeds so that he can get up and work the next day. The importance of her physical and emotional health is ignored, at a high cost to the devastation that perinatal mental illness causes, and a high cost to the NHS.

Let’s stop torturing mothers. Let’s stop ignoring the problem of expecting new mums to get back to normal. They are not normal, they are super important, and we need to value them and treat them with the greatest respect, if we don’t want them to break into a million pieces, shattering the lives of all those around them. The NHS needs to prioritise maternal mental health, not just with adequate treatment facilities once the damage is done, but also with prevention in the first place. Proper paternity leave, decent postnatal wards with midwives who have time to care, regular home visits, continuity of care. Change needs to happen in attitudes as well. We need to start telling other people how important it is, to look after mum. Encourage partners to “put mum to sleep”. Tuck her up in bed with a chamomile tea (or a G and T) and tell her to stay there. Turn the lights off for her, bring her an extra pillow, tell visitors to go away because she is sleeping, bring the baby to her when he or she needs a feed. The cost of not doing so, could be her mental health.”

Mia Scotland, Clinical Psychologist, Author of “Why Perinatal Depression Matters”

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About lindakay1948

I am what is known as a psychiatric survivor. I've had three breakdowns, each occurring after SEVERE SLEEP DEPRIVATION. I was forced to take neuroleptics each time, but have been off of them now for over twenty eight years. The problem is that, even though I took these drugs for very short periods of time, they left me with permanent damage. My first breakdown came in 1975, before I had any children. I was on Haldol and Cogentin for about four months, then took myself off these drugs after the psychiatrist refused to do it, telling me I would have to be on them for the rest of my life. After I went off of them I realized that I had lost the feeling in my saddle area that made it possible for me to become sexually aroused. I also didn't understand why I couldn't feel when I had to urinate until there was strong pressure in my abdomen. I wondered if this numbness would be permanent, but was relieved when, after two years, the feelings came back to some degree. (However, they were never to be as strong as they had been.) Well, time went by, and I married and had two children, one in the hospital and one at home, both without anesthesia. The feelings I had seemed intact until about a month after my second child was born in 1981. I was a nursing mom, did my own diapers, and worked very hard, often into the night. My baby seemed to have colic, both of my children woke me up over and over at night, and I could not get them to sleep at the same time during the day. So I didn't sleep for about a week. I started to exhibit psychotic symptoms again, was taken to the hospital, forcibly drugged, and labled a "chronic paranoid schizophrenic". Again I took the Haldol and Cogentin for a couple of weeks, then flushed it down the toilet. Again I had lost all my sexual feelings and had to remind myself to urinate. After a couple of years I began to feel just a little. Then a major family crisis came along in 1983 over which I didn't sleep for about a week. I would have taken a sleeping pill if I could have, but did not have the opportunity until it was too late. By that time I thought I could do anything. I felt like a superwoman. Well, I was only in the hospital for three days, and I immediately flushed the Haldol and Cogentin down the toilet when I got home, but it was too late. I felt as though I had sat on a big piece of ice that I couldn't get off of, and it wouldn't melt. 'Still feels like it never will. I have (literally) sat on this secret for over twenty eight years. At first I thought it must be psychosomatic, something having to do with my anger, and went though extensive therapy. Then, in 1993, I found an M.D. who would actually listen to me, and he put me through some medical testing. When he had finished he told me that I had apparently lost the feeling in my saddle area. In other words, I have a permanent saddle block, or PERMANANT GENITAL ANESTHESIA. I am blessed with a wonderful, understanding, husband, whom I've been married to for thirty three years. We have two grown children, who are both married, and two wonderful grandchildren. I'm AMAZED, because I was once afraid to marry and have children. As I was working toward my BA in Psych, I was told that mental illness is inherited. Yes, it seemed to run in my family. My great grandmother died in an institution and my mother was on psychiatric drugs for most of her life, until she developed Tardive Dyskinesia (brain damage) from them just before she died. I thank God everyday for my family, but I believe that it is important for me to share my story with the public now because so many young people are being given the drugs I was given, and other similar ones. I have heard about people who are on anti-depressants reporting permanent sexual side effects, but I wonder how many have experienced them after being given the major tranquilizers (neuroleptics). The damage that these drugs have done to me has been DEVASTATING. Is it any wonder that there are so many angry, violent, depressed, and suicidal young people when so many of them are being put on drugs they can't "say no" to? Country: United States Occupation: Montessori Teacher
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3 Responses to Torturing new mothers and then wondering why they get mentally ill.

  1. You know what I read in one of those pop psychology articles? Most people think the most common cause of insomnia is depression or anxiety. Nope. The NUMBER ONE cause is “crying baby.” I don’t know if that is in the Western world or worldwide or what that was based on. I do know that the USA is the only country that does not yet have mandatory paid work leave for new parents. They get leave, but unpaid.

    • lindakay1948 says:

      I went through that “crying baby” thing too, with my second child.

      • Yeah and it’s so easy to lose sleep. Especially for women, who are socially pressured to be ‘selfless” and give their babies their all. That’s the societal norm! No wonder so many develop post-partum, it sounds NORMAL to me!!!! We really need a more tolerant society. Like if a new mom has such troubles, someone else who has been through it can help her out by explaining. Instead, who is it that does the “treatment”? Male psychiatrists.

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