Written by Lisa Norman

April 20th – 25th is Neonatal mental health awareness week 2020. This topic is one that both Stacey and I feel strongly about. This year the focus is around the first words that come to mind when you think of neonatal mental health. My first words that come to mind are that – neonatal mental health is a real thing. Not only is it real but support needs to be given by multiple people/bodies (NHS, family, friends, employers etc.)

My mental health was affected by the birth of my son, how could it not be? Arriving 10 weeks early when a routine scan picked up that he had Hydrops Fetalis which was a build-up of fluid all over his body that if it reached his heart and lungs he would have drowned. The other health condition he was diagnosed with was Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT) which is where an electrical signal in the heart misfires telling the heart to beat too quickly. My son’s heart was beating at 320 beats per minute at birth (about 6 beats per second!).

The baby boy who lived

My baby boy wasn’t expected to survive delivery, in fact his chances of surviving delivery were 20% and a 10% chance of surviving beyond delivery. He fought hard to survive and will soon be turning 3. The first four weeks of his life though were such an emotional roller coaster. His health conditions were really difficult for the doctors to get under control so each day our tiny baby boy’s survival wasn’t guaranteed.

Premature baby in his incubator
Lisa’s little boy in his incubator

After a transfer to a more specialist hospital my little boy reached a turning point and he started making huge improvements. On day 73 we got the amazing news that he could come home. Four days later though the unthinkable happened and he went into respiratory arrest and we had to resuscitate him on the dining room table. He whimpered back to life just as the ambulance turned into our road.

He had bronchiolitis so we were rushed back to hospital where he spent a week recovering. The next 18 months we would be back to the children’s ward on a regular basis. All this took its toll on my mental health unsurprisingly and I was diagnosed with anxiety and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

The mental health toll

I would be needing help if I was going to be able to return to work full time and so I went to see my GP. It was so hard to do! I had to admit to a stranger that I wasn’t coping and that I needed help. I remember sitting in the waiting room and thinking of the wording I wanted to use with this stranger so they didn’t think I was crazy or wasn’t a good mum to my son.

My turn came round and I walked in and sat down. Anything pre-planned went out of my head and I blurted out a brief version of my birth story and what had happened with my son after his birth. Then I said I was due to go back to work and I didn’t know how to do that. The GP was great. There was no judgement and no disapproval. We discussed a few options open to me and I decided that talking therapy felt like the best route for me. Where I live this is a self-referral, so armed with all the relevant information and telephone numbers I left the doctor’s office feeling relieved.

Doctor caring for patient. Photography credit: Arvin Chingcuangco
Doctor caring for patient. Photography credit: Arvin Chingcuangco

I went back home and lost a little of my new found confidence so I didn’t ring the number straight away. In fact it was about 3 weeks later when I realised my return to work date was getting closer and closer. I rang the number and spoke to a really nice lady who took my details and a note of my symptoms along with my son’s birth story which was the cause of my stress.

Fast tracked to therapy

As I had my son less than a year ago at this point I was fast tracked and soon had an appointment date to see a therapist. I was nervous about my first visit but I had no need to be, she was lovely. She said how the therapy would work and laid down some ground rules. I signed a contract to say I was happy to work with her and in the appointments that followed that’s exactly what we did! She was there to support me when I returned to work, which didn’t go well to start with.

There was a mix up when I changed management and both had thought I had been offered a phased return to work and both thought I had declined this offer. I hadn’t had the offer so I went back full time straight away. On my third day back my manager asked how I was doing and I broke down saying I was really struggling. She asked why I hadn’t accepted the phased return to work option. This is when it was realised it was never offered.

She quickly rectified this and my hours were reduced immediately. I was then allowed to build them up slowly to my full time working hours over a few weeks. My therapist sent in a supporting letter for the decision which prompted an occupational health assessment and triggered a carer’s passport to be applied for and issued. The carer’s passport is a document that is included in my personnel file explaining my caring responsibilities of my son and why they may be additional to what other parents have with their children.

Lisa Norman. Photography credit: Vivienne Guy
Lisa Norman. Photography credit: Vivienne Guy

Getting back into my work life

My team were great too and really helped me to get back into work life. Don’t get me wrong some think there is a time limit on how long your child can be used as an ‘excuse’ but mostly colleagues were (and still are) very supportive. This support has had a huge impact on my mental health improving as it takes so much pressure off.

I have heard many horror stories about work places being horrific for mums returning to work, in particular preemie mums. I think employers are realising that mums are an integral part of workforces and they need to be looked after better than they have in previous years. I think there is still more work to be done for dad’s too. Dad’s mental health seems to be cast aside and they are expected to just get on with life and work as if nothing has happened.

We all need to play a part in changing mental health stigmas in general and it looks like a key way to do this is to keep talking and keep challenging employers. If you want to find out more about Neonatal Mental Health awareness then visit the charity Leo’s Neonatal.

Did you see…

Our last blog from Rachel?