First of all, that title doesn’t tell the whole story. Everyone needs more support with postnatal depression (and postnatal anxiety, and antenatal depression and anxiety too, and all aspects of perinatal mental health, for that matter). There are certain obstacles, however, that make it harder for younger parents to access the help they need.
Let’s look at the statistics first. The Young Mums Together report put together by the Mental Health Foundation states that 53% of teenage mothers (that is, women who became mothers between the ages of 15-17) experienced post-partum depression, according to one study. As for young mothers (that is, mothers under the age of 20) – well, I’ve looked and I’ve looked, and I can’t find any statistics for this at all.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why tailored support is so hard to come by? Young parents exist in some kind of flux state; constantly told we are too young to have a baby, but unable to access the same support offered to our younger, teenage counterparts. Although availability varies by area, there are support groups for teenage mothers that offer emotional support and friendly faces to talk to, all of whom understand what it is like to be a teenage parent.
As a young parent, you can’t access these groups. You have to go along to the ‘normal’ parenting groups. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to interact with parents of all ages – but it’s hard to strike up a conversation when they’re talking about enjoying their maternity leave, and you’re trying to cobble together an essay during 2am feeding sessions, or looking at having to return to your part-time job in a couple of weeks to keep money coming in. Add that to the fact that the overwhelming majority of these groups take place on weekdays, when many young parents are in work or college or university, and you’re left with a group of young parents unable to access the support and community that they need.
I know I talk a lot about the stigma young parents face, and nowhere is it more prevalent than in discussions of perinatal mental health. Many young parents are concerned that from the moment their pregnancy is announced, they’ll be on the radar of social services, purely because they are under 20. This simply isn’t true – your midwife may contact them if she has concerns or feels that you need extra support, but for the most part, your pregnancy will be treated no differently to any other woman’s of any other age.
However, because of what we’re told about social services near enough every other day – that they latch onto any opportunity to swoop in and take your baby and give it to a nice middle-class couple in their 30s – it’s not hard to see why lots of young parents are on high alert for anything that could put them on the radar of these services.
The truth is that social services will do everything in their power to keep a family together. That isn’t to say that they are faultless, and they haven’t made mistakes, but these are very few and far between, and while the media is only too happy to print stories from people who have been wronged by social services, we need to remember that we are only ever hearing half of the story.
Of course, it’s all well and good for me to say this now. In the early months after SB’s birth, I was terrified that if I gave even the first suggestion that I needed a little help or support, SB would be taken away from me. Part of that was the depression and anxiety itself talking – another part was me believing everything I’d heard about social services as evil child snatchers.
In hindsight, I realise that doctors won’t automatically refer you to social services if you tell them you’re depressed. A referral to social services doesn’t automatically mean your children will be taken away – quite the opposite, in fact. It means you’ll receive every support possible to keep your family together. It also means you can access treatment to help you get into a better frame of mind.
I cannot imagine how it must feel to have been let down by social services, but I can imagine that you would want the world to hear about the injustice. The way you voice it, however, is very important. So many people – no doubt in anger, rather than out of malice – declare that social services are kidnappers and evil and not to be trusted under any circumstances, because they’re just waiting to snatch “pretty white babies” (direct quote there) and give them to other couples.
That’s not in the job description of a social worker. It’s not like some big stock room where they look through the cupboards and think “Oh dear, we’re short on pretty white babies, we’d better go out and steal some more”, and claiming that they do work like that is damaging to other parents out there.
The media should shoulder the vast majority of the blame, however. They take any opportunity to portray social workers as villains, creating a culture of fear and mistrust surrounding the people whose job it is to support parents and keep families together. I think when we’re discussing the causes of postnatal depression and anxiety, the media have a hell of a lot to answer for – but right now, we know they’ll never change. They never do.
That’s not to say that all media outlets are responsible for this. Some are excellent at supporting young parents, like Visit From The Stork. Others aren’t targeted at parents, but they report sensibly, without the drama llama-ness and scaremongering found in – well, I’ll go ahead and say it, The Daily Mail.
PND is a major problem across all age groups, but young parents are at particular risk of feeling cut off from all services and groups designed to reduce the isolation and loneliness, and are at added risk of feeling that they can’t seek help for fear of involvement from outside agencies.
Right now, I don’t know what the solution is. Groups specifically for young parents? That requires funding and volunteers, two things that are in short supply these days. More perinatal mental health midwives? That would be a great start, but given the well-publicised issues the NHS is facing right now, I think it’s possibly dreaming a little too big.
All those of us who are young parents can do is continue to talk about our experiences, on every platform we can find, in the hope that other young parents will find it and feel a little less isolated and a little more supported. We can dispel the myths about going to the doctor and admitting that you’re struggling. We can provide listening ears and supportive words to pick people up and be by their side – virtually, if not physically.