Over the past week or so, the UK press has given extensive coverage to the tragic deaths of new mother Charlotte Bevan and her four day old baby daughter, Zaani Tiana.
If you are not familiar with the story, 30 year old Charlotte, who allegedly had a history of depression and schizophrenia, walked out of her local maternity hospital with her baby daughter, and committed suicide with her daughter at local beauty spot Avon Gorge in Bristol. The press has since reported that Charlotte had been in touch with social workers throughout her pregnancy, and that she may have been frightened that her baby would be taken away from her. It has also been reported that Charlotte stopped taking her medication so that she would be able to breastfeed her daughter.
Quite rightly, the NHS is now launching an investigation to look into how the new mother was allowed to leave her maternity ward. The press are being particularly vocal in their call for new mothers, particularly those with a history of mental health illness, to be much more closely monitored in hospital.
Yet there is one aspect to this tragic story that is not being discussed, despite the fact that it is an aspect that I believe would have significantly reduced the risk of Charlotte and her daughter coming to harm. An aspect that is based on myths and unsubstantiated claims and which, as a result, is causing extreme heartache and suffering to many new mothers and their families.
And it’s this: “Charlotte stopped taking her medication so that she would be able to breastfeed her daughter.”
According to media reports, Charlotte Bevan used to be on anti depressant medication to treat her depression. I don’t know if she was still on anti depressant medication during pregnancy. However, allegedly, she stopped taking her medication because she thought that there would be risks to the baby if she took anti-depressants if she was breastfeeding.
And here’s the rub. In fact, here is the bit that makes me want to climb inside the internet and scream and shout at new or expectant mothers who are googling and reading pages of ill-advised advice about the risks of taking anti depressants and breastfeeding:
YOU CAN TAKE ANTI DEPRESSANTS WHEN YOU ARE BREASTFEEDING.
That’s right. You CAN take anti depressants when you are breastfeeding.
I know, because I just did it.
And guess what? It turns out me and my baby are fine.
A bit of a back story about me. I had severe post natal depression following the birth of my first baby, who was born with a heart abnormality. During pregnancy number two, anxiety hit me like a tonne of bricks – I suffered from acute anxiety, agorophobia and panic attacks from week eight until the day I gave birth. And beyond. Well beyond. In fact, I’m still taking (a lot of) medication now. And I was admitted to psychiatric hospital too. So I was really really unwell.
Both my GP and psychologist recommended to me at that eight week mark to go on to anti depressant medication. And did I? No. Because I’d read all the scare stories about taking anti depressants when pregnant and was terrified of harming my baby.
So I got more unwell.
And then a bit more unwell. So unwell that I recall having to lie in a darkened room because my entire body was shaking. My heart was hammering and I was literally gasping for air, paralysed to the spot. This particular anxiety attack had me in its grip for over four hours.
That night, I made a choice. I chose to go to my doctor the next day and asked to be referred to a psychiatrist, so I could be prescribed anti depressants and have my illness properly managed. I knew that I had another six months of pregnancy to get through. I had a job to go to. A house to run. And a young son to look after. Staying in bed for six months was not an option.
I did go on medication, and I stayed on it throughout pregnancy. It didn’t cure me, but it certainly made me able to function on a daily basis.
I was lucky that my psychiatrist specialises in perinatal anxiety and depression. I had expert monitoring throughout my pregnancy, and, when I gave birth and decided to breastfeed, guess what my psychiatrist did? She put me on ANOTHER anti depressant. So I was (and still am) taking TWO anti depressants (I didn’t even know this was a thing!). And I breastfed my baby boy until he was six months old. He is now 12 months old, walking, almost talking, getting in to mischief and is quite evidently undamaged by my choice to take medication.
But here’s the uncomfortable truth – I can’t say for sure is that we would have remained undamaged if I hadn’t taken medication.
Because I know why Charlotte Bevan did what she did. I understand what she was feeling, because I have had those same feelings throughout this wretched illness. I had my suicide plan well thought out. But I didn’t go through with it, because the medication helped me to cling on to life by my fingertips, even though every fibre of my being was willing me to let go so that it could all be over with.
I’m not a doctor, but here is what I do know:
1. My psychiatrist, who is a specialist in perinatal mental health, prescribes anti depressants to pregnant women and new mothers every single day.
2. Obviously, no one is willing to test medication on pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. So, to cover themselves, pharmaceutical companies say that their medicines ‘are not advised for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers’ – even if the products would actually be safe.
3. In the mother and baby unit of the hospital where I was staying, almost all of the new mothers were on medication and breastfeeding. And all the babies have turned out fine.
When I read about Charlotte Bevan, I want to know who told her to stop taking her medication. I want to know, because it was irresponsible advice that arguably led to her death. I have met too many mothers who were advised, wrongly, to come off their anti depressant medication when they were pregnant, and they’ve all had awful outcomes (helloooo psychiatric ward). GPs and other so called ‘specialists’ who are erring on the side of caution are costing lives.
Of course, there can be risks to all medications. I get that. But, if the mother ship isn’t functioning, there’s no hope for the baby. We’re talking about unsubstantiated risks, scant ‘evidence’, and rumours versus a mother, or, in Charlotte’s case, a mother and child, no longer being here.
Which is why, somewhere on the internet, this post needs to exist. If just one mother reads this, and, as a result, changes her mind about stopping her medication, it has been worth writing. So please, if you are still reading, PLEASE share this post. Let’s make this post appear in the google search rankings so that mums can understand that there is another side to this story.
Finally, if you are reading this post and are worried about taking anti depressants during pregnancy or when breastfeeding, please, PLEASE talk to your doctor. And if your doctor tells you to stop taking your anti depressant medication, then find a new doctor who knows what they are talking about. Your baby needs you to be well.
You need you to be well.
Pre and post natal anxiety and depression is a cruel, hideous journey, but medication can help to make the journey a little easier.