By Charlie Pryor
One of my sisters died nearly three years ago of an illness that affects one in four people in the UK. But when people ask what she died of, I still find myself a little reluctant to tell them. It’s not because I don’t want to talk about it but I’ve found it stuns people into an embarrassed silence and I don’t really want to have to deal with their reactions. However, I’m happy to shout about the manner of her death if it helps others.
Let me give you some background. My sister’s eldest child is 29 and she has – had, rather – two other children. With the first and the third, in particular, she was hit heavily by postnatal psychosis. It never really went away and she continued to be on a very low level of anti-depressants.
She found a way of managing. No, that’s wrong: she did much more than manage. She was the life and soul of every party, and she went to a lot of parties, all over the world. And she made friends wherever she went.
She took the time to make friends with everyone because she wanted to, never because she thought she might get anything from it. To give you an idea, seven hundred and fifty people came to the thanksgiving services to celebrate her life. And she was the only one who would have – could have – known every single person in church that day.
It’s a cliché. But she was a loving wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, friend. She was the cosiest, kindest, snuggliest person you could hope to meet. As my daughter said, she always smelt lovely. What more could you ask for?
Current research shows that postnatal psychosis can reoccur at menopause. My sister was 52. She was walloped again by her illness a few months before she died. She was doing everything she could to beat it but the deadlines came and went for when this medication would start making a difference, or that therapy would deliver results. We’ll never know her thought process because she can’t tell us now. But my view is she just couldn’t see a way out and didn’t want to be a burden.
I come from a close, and large, family. After she died, a lot of us were together for a couple of days. And by ‘we’ I mean also my brother-in-law and my adult nieces and nephews; I’m the youngest and my children are school age so weren’t there. We talked, a lot, often about things we’d never wanted to broach before. Nothing was off-bounds and nobody passed any judgement or apportioned blame. There were, of course, some hot moments but they soon passed because we all wanted to be together and lay the foundations on which to build our grief and our future lives. It was difficult at times but overwhelmingly it was incredibly uplifting.
The first lesson is fairly obvious. Thank goodness suicide is no longer a crime. Why did that take us until 1961?
The second is the value of talking. Again, it’s an obvious one. But the real lesson is in fact open-mindedness and love. When people open their minds and hearts to you, take what they say as it is given: with an open mind and with love. You might disagree and that’s absolutely fine, even to be expected. But don’t leap to criticism, as we often do. Instead listen, try to understand, discuss. You’ll help that person and you might even learn something.
When I do tell people how she died, it’s amazing how many people have friends and family who have taken their own lives. Sometimes, people have told me about their own attempts.
Which leads to the most important lesson. I’m not the first to bang this drum and, sadly, I won’t be the last. If my sister had died from cancer, or a car crash, or an asthma attack, there would be no perceived embarrassment. But she didn’t. She was killed by a mental illness. As a society, we need to grow up and get rid of the stigma around these grim illnesses. If one of my legs is falling off, I need to see an orthopaedic surgeon. If my brain isn’t working properly – as happens to a quarter of the population – I need to see a mental health professional.
It’s particularly important with maternal mental health. There are all sorts of reasons why it happens but they are all triggered by pregnancy or birth, making its timing fairly predictable. There is no excuse for letting women suffer without help.
Please do what you can to help other people avoid my sister’s death.
Charlie is a Trustee of Baby Lifeline and this is his personal story. Charlie wanted to shed light on the lasting impact of perinatal mental health, and the importance of supporting women this World Mental Health Day. The video above is one he has recorded for our Perinatal Mental Health course for health professionals.
World Mental Health Day 2020
World Mental Health Day 2020 is particularly important, as the mental health of the population is suffering due to the enormous impact of lockdown and loss. It is important now more than ever to prioritise mental health.
This year the day marks an opportunity and a plea to do one thing better for mental health. This might be changing one thing about your routine or doing something to help yourself or a loved one. If you’re a health professional caring for women during pregnancy or afterwards, this could be an opportunity to make a positive change to better recognise women in need of support.
Perinatal Mental Health
Perinatal mental health problems can occur during pregnancy or in the first year following birth, and it can affect up to 1 in 5 women.
Being pregnant and having a baby can feel overwhelming, but if these feelings start to impact your life on a regular basis, you may experiencing mental health problems. There are organisations out there to support you – you are not alone. You can also speak to a health professional, they will be able to help you.