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“At work, we often put on a mask and suffer from mental illness in silence”

Mark and Ericka both experienced post-natal depression and PTSD after the birth of their first children. Ahead of this year’s This Can Happen conference, they explain why workplaces need to improve support for employees experiencing mental illness.

[Trigger warning: this post references suicide]

Mark started Reaching Out PMH, through which he runs workshops and speaks at conferences about his own experience. He says:

“I suffered my first panic attack at 30 and didn’t have a clue what was happening to me. It was the day my first son was born. My wife Michelle was taken to theatre for an emergency C-section and I honestly thought she was going to die. I was terrified. 

Thankfully, both Michelle and Ethan survived but sometime later, we realised Michelle was suffering from anxiety and depression. 

During this period, I experienced nightmares about Michelle and Ethan dying in the theatre. I would wake up thinking it was real. Sadly, Michelle went on to develop severe postnatal depression and my world changed forever.

Within weeks of Michelle’s diagnosis, I gave up my job to care for Michelle and Ethan.

I had loved the social side of my job, but now I was totally isolated. Sometimes I wouldn’t get out the front door for days. Within months, my personality changed – I was angry and drinking in an attempt to cope. I began to have uncontrollable suicidal thoughts, but never acted on them.   

At the time, I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone.

I was raised in a working-class community where my father and grandfather were coal miners. Growing up we looked up to ‘hard men’ who didn’t show their emotions. I kept telling myself I just had to ‘man up’ and everything would be okay.

It took around eighteen months before Michelle started to feel better, and of course, it affected our relationship. It so often causes the breakdown of families when there’s no early intervention. I didn’t feel I could tell her how I was feeling as I didn’t want to risk it impacting her mental health. 

One day, whilst sitting in my car before walking into work, I had a complete breakdown.

I literally couldn’t get out the car, I was shaking, crying and suicidal thoughts were racing through my mind. I phoned an organisation called Mental Health Matters Wales and was told to seek help. This call may well have saved my life.

Eventually, I was put on medication, took a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness. I was lucky to be able to turn things around. While under a community mental health team, I was diagnosed with ADHD. Professionals have also suggested I would also have been diagnosed with PTSD and postnatal depression if I had accessed help earlier.

Post-natal depression looks different in men, but it’s just as much of a struggle.

The biggest killer in men under 50 in the UK is suicide – and men experiencing perinatal problems are 47% more at risk of suicide than at any other time in their life (Quevedo et al, 2010).

Lots of factors can affect men after a new baby; lack of sleep, stress at work, feeling trapped, getting used to the responsibility, bonding with their new child or feeling like they’re not good enough to be fathers. I want fathers experiencing this to know they’re not the only ones - and that there’s no shame in seeking help as soon as possible. Don’t suffer in silence like I did.

Workplaces can play a critical role in helping new fathers.

It’s so important that workplaces support staff if they're going through postnatal depression. They could help to screen new fathers before any problems develop and open the conversation so men feel they can come forward if they’re struggling. This is where events like This Can Happen can come in.

I’ve also been really impressed by Ford’s recent initiative to host paternity workshops that educate fathers-to-be about the importance of mental health.

I’d love to understand more about why people develop postnatal depression.

I want to know whether its genetic - how much does DNA put someone at risk? Will Ethan be more likely to experience mental health problems because Michelle and I have? 

Soon, dads will start being screened for their mental health - but only if their partner has previously experienced postnatal depression. We need to start screening new dads, whatever the situation. But we also need to see more money ploughed into mental health research to make sure this can happen.

I’m so thankful to say that both Michelle and I are doing well these days and have a great bond with our son and the two children we’ve had since. In the next ten years, I think we’re going to see a massive shift in attitudes to male postnatal depression. I’m hopeful for the future.”

Besides her role in trading, Ericka is one of the founding co-chairs of Family Matters network at MUFG Bank and will be speaking at this year’s This Can Happen conference. She and her husband also experienced PTSD after the birth of their first child. She said:

“This Can Happen is such an important event because it sends a message that people shouldn’t be scared to talk about their experiences of mental illness at work. When I nearly died after birth and suffered from PTSD, it felt abnormal – I didn’t realise that others were going through the same thing and did not receive any support from my employer at that time. At work, we put on a mask and often suffer in silence. 

People are suffering and business is suffering. We have to work together to combat the pressures faced by many of our colleagues every day.”

Find out more about This Can Happen here.

Last updated: 21 November 2019

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