Women ‘Talk to Joe’ about traumatic childbirth stories

Advice column with Operation Transformation's Dr Eddie Murphy

Women ‘Talk to Joe’ about traumatic childbirth stories

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The Joe Duffy show over the past number of weeks has lifted the lid on the common occurrence of traumatic birth.

The stories told by women on the radio programme have been very powerful and moving, and I have been emotional listening to such hurt narratives.

I have to say that I am not surprised there has been a national catharsis for so many women. I believe, based on my experiences in the therapy room that the frequency of traumatic births for women is totally underestimated, and that the powerful stories shared by families, and the opportunity to tell those stories created by the Joe Duffy show, has healed many wounds and opened up others.

I want to reflect on two important points about this story, namely on how birth-related trauma is under-recognised and the role of compassion in recovery.

Mary’s story

One of the most competent woman I have met in my therapy room is Mary (not her real name) — a funny, articulate, joyful lady whose mental health journey started after her first birth.

Her traumatic birth experience was ignored by professionals who should have known better, and her life cascaded into a hellish post-natal depression, requiring hospitalisation and which caused disruption to her early attachment with her son.

The worst part was the guilt and fear she would carry for decades. The fear of another pregnancy, and would she fall apart again? The guilt of the pain that she had caused to her husband and her family. The entrapment into a mental health system that focuses on mental illness, and medication being the only pathway out.

You can’t medicate your way out of trauma.

I have a special interest in trauma. I don’t fully know why, possibly it stems from my nursing days when my interest was in A&E and coronary care.

Over time, this developed in my psychology practice and I began looking at the areas of trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless in a dangerous world. For pregnant mothers this is a most vulnerable time. I think this vulnerability is overlooked.

A traumatic birth is a once- or twice-off experience for most mums. But for professionals, it happens hundreds or thousands of times, and so the vulnerability is diminished.

Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and isolated can result in trauma, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatised.

When events go out of control, eg, resulting in an emergency caesarean section; sick, ill or dying infants, then these become overwhelming. This can lead to responses including post-natal depression, post-natal anxiety and PTSD.

What I know is that, when it comes to trauma, the memory and the event, if not worked on, get stuck together — and this can lead to cognitive, behavioural and emotional symptoms.

Indeed, when bad things happen when you’ve experienced an extremely stressful or disturbing event that’s left you feeling helpless and emotionally out of control, you may have been traumatised.

Psychological trauma can leave you struggling with upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety that won’t go away. It can also leave you feeling numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people. I would encourage you to seek help from your GP or those with experience of treating trauma.

Where was the Kindness and Compassion?

There was a lot of accounts shared on Joe Duffy about the lack of human niceties of kindness and compassion during traumatic birth experiences.

Stories recounted harshness and hurtful statements by healthcare staff, including midwives, nurses and doctors.

Here’s what I know and it’s a difficult message to give and receive. Indeed, I tried to give this message before and it was rejected as it “couldn’t” be heard.

I believe and know that when people are stressed, exhausted and burnt-out, they have no capacity for kindness and compassion. I believe that staff will act in a perfunctory manner, devoid of sensitivity, warmth, and empathy when that are in this state.

We must support such staff to address this issue. Health managers, at times, in midwifery care struggle to hear this. The research evidence shows this, but they rather tolerate in their personal narrative that staff are professional. I would prefer to be treated by a professional who has compassion than one who is burnt out.

When it comes to our healthcare systems, particularly in childbirth, the Joe Duffy show needs to be played to new and existing staff, along with an attempt by management to understand why people acted like this.

They can then use this learning to help future mothers during this potentially vulnerable period in their lives.

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