After the birth of her baby son, Barbara Cunningham was admitted to Whitchurch Hospital and detained under the Mental Health Act.
Despite never experiencing any mental health issues previously, she had been diagnosed with postpartum psychosis and was separated from her newborn aged just 11 days.
She described her time in the imposing, run-down acute facility, surrounded by severely unwell men and women, as like something out of a horror film.
“I cannot use words to describe the pain, guilt, feelings of loss and shame that tangled themselves up in my fragile head,” she said.
“I cannot ever describe the feeling when a door shuts and you are standing in a critical ICU mixed mental health ward thinking you are in some living horror film.
“I cannot start to tell you how my husband and family and friends struggled to see this happen, pretty much powerless to help.
“This day haunts me as it is possibly the worst day of my life to date. I have never felt so scared, so powerless, so not in control of my life. I have never felt so alone, so bereft, so sad.”
The NHS describes postpartum psychosis as a serious mental health illness that can affect someone soon after having a baby. It affects around one in 500 mothers after giving birth. It’s very different from the “baby blues” and should be treated as a medical emergency.
Symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions, a manic mood, a low mood, loss of inhibitions, feeling suspicious or fearful, restlessness, feeling very confused, and behaving in a way that’s out of character
Before Barbara was admitted to the hospital on the outskirts of Cardiff, she was exclusively breastfeeding her son. But that had to come to an abrupt end.
“I left my house alone, in the back of a police car, and I can remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday,” she recalled.
“I remember arriving at Whitchurch, seeing the vast rambling buildings and corridors. I remember my room, devoid of coat hangers in case I should want to harm myself. I remember the bath but having to ask for a plug first and the banging on the door later to ensure I was still alive. I had no intention of harming myself, but I cannot speak for the other residents. To place a new mother on a mixed acute ward is so wrong on so many levels.
“I was confused, frightened, alone, I was scared to take medication because I wanted to feed my baby, I felt I had no-one to turn to and no-one I could trust.”
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Thankfully, her stay in the unit was short. After four days she was transferred to the University Hospital of Wales (UHW) mother and baby unit as a space had opened up.
She added: “To say I was overjoyed was an understatement, but the best part was I was reunited with my son. I stayed there for three months until I was well enough to return home.”
That was all back in May, 2004, and while Barbara made a full recovery, after the birth of her daughter in 2007 she fell ill again.
“This time we were on alert and no section was required, but again I stayed in the unit for three months,” she added.
In November, 2013, the mother and baby unit at UHW was closed down. Since then, new mums needing serious mental health care have either been supported in the community, admitted to acute mental health wards without their babies, or have had to travel to one of the specialist mother and baby units in England.
And in 2017, Barbara said she felt ready to share her story and join others campaigning to bring such a valued facility back to Wales, stopping mothers from being many miles away from their loved ones.
And their perseverance paid off. On Monday, April 19, Uned Gobaith (‘Unit of Hope’) opened its doors at Tonna Hospital, Neath, to offer inpatient mental health care to women from 32 weeks of pregnancy until their baby is one year old.
It has six individual bedrooms for women and their little ones. Mums who are admitted have access to a shared living room and kitchen areas along with a playroom, quiet room and sensory room. Accommodation is also available for family members travelling from further away to visit their loved ones.
“I am proud to have been involved in meetings since 2017 with the NHS to help bring a unit back to Wales again. I have spoken at many conferences and at the Senedd on the subject,” added Barbara, now 46.
“I was delighted to see it open on April 19 – so many people worked so hard to make it happen. We actually had input into the colour choices, the decoration and how it would run. They listened to what we had to say and many of our suggestions were implemented.”
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Barbara, who now lives with bipolar disorder which is thought to have been caused by the postpartum psychosis, said mental illness had the potential to tear families apart.
“It does not discriminate, it does not care if you are educated, rich or poor, famous or just a face in the crowd,” added Barbara, who now volunteers with the charity Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP), givingone-to-one support either in person or by email or video call .
“It has taken me years to get over what happened, to be in a place where I can help others. I cannot imagine not using my experiences to do this. But it took time. It took understanding from family and friends; it was about rebuilding bridges and gaining confidence again. It took a long time for me to be able to share what had happened, but as awareness grows it has become easier. I would probably not be here if the Cardiff unit had not been open on the two occasions I needed it.”
Barbara, along with Ines Fontan Grana, Toni Evans and Danielle Thomas, who have all suffered severe postnatal illness, set up the group, Friends of Uned Gobaith. It hopes to raise additional funds to provide the unit with baby sensory room equipment, toys, bean bags, activity equipment, books and things for the garden. To donate please go here.
“By no means is this unit going to solve the problem for the whole of Wales and we realise that, but it’s a start. All funds raised will go towards purchasing items to be given to the unit. We are hoping to start donating items within the next few months.”