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Ask the Doc: Duffy lifts the lid on birth trauma

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The Joe Duffy show over recent weeks lifted the lid on the common occurrence of traumatic birth stories.

They were so powerful, so moving and I have been emotional listening to such hurt narratives. I believe, based on my experiences in the therapy room that the frequency of traumatic births for women is totally underestimated. The powerful stories shared by families and the opportunity created by The Joe Duffy Show has healed many wounds and opened up others.

I want to reflect on two important parts about this story; how birth related trauma is under-recognised, and the role of compassion. One of the most competent woman I have met in my room is Mary (pseudonym) a funny, articulate, joyful lady whose mental health journey started after her first child was born.

This traumatic birth was ignored by professionals and her life cascaded into a hellish post-natal depression requiring hospitalisation and disruption to her early attachment with her son. The worst part was the guilt and fear she carried for decades. The fear of another pregnancy. The guilt of the pain that she had caused her family.Entrapment into a mental health system that focus on mental illness and medication being the only choice.

You can’t medicate your way out of trauma. 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. Pregnant mothers are at their most vulnerable. This is often overlooked. While it’s a once or twice experience for mums, for professionals it happens thousands of times.

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.

Also read: Longford family's plea for life-saving meningitis vaccine following tragic loss of their daughter

When events go out of control, eg emergency caesarean section, sick, ill or dying infants then these become overwhelming. This can lead to post natal depression, post natal anxiety or PTSD. In trauma the memory and the event if not worked on get stuck together and this can lead to cognitive, behavioural and emotional symptoms.

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? There were a lot of accounts from the mothers about the lack of human kindness and compassion. Stories recounted harshness and hurtful statements by healthcare staff midwives, nurses and doctors.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.

If we are to support staff this is the path we have to take. Health managers at times in midwifery care struggle to hear this. I would prefer to be treated by a professional who has compassion than one 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 trying to understand why people acted like this. Then use this learning to help future mums during this vulnerable period.

Also read: Longford family's plea for life-saving meningitis vaccine following tragic loss of their daughter

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