Having a newborn baby can be overwhelming and confusing, even if you find yourself a natural mum. But if you're one of the increasing numbers of women affected by postnatal depression (PND) - recent studies indicate it could be as many as one in five - then it's likely to be an altogether different experience. Thankfully, it's not something you'll have to go through alone; a new support group has been set up in Dubai to help women through what could otherwise be a horrendous time.
"We're a group of mums who have all had postnatal depression. After meeting through various online forums, we realised there was a real need for support for women like us in Dubai and the UAE," says Andrea Allen, 39, a co-founder of Out of the Blues.
The group organises regular coffee mornings and evening get-togethers, which have attracted many of their more than 70 members.
Calling themselves the Blue Angels, the group's five founding members also provide individual support.
"We're meeting many women on a one-to-one basis, calling and taking calls, using WhatsApp and text messaging, e-mailing and, of course, we have the Facebook page and the BigTent forum, which is completely private and secure," Allen says. "Basically, we're just making sure there's someone here to listen if you need it."
The positive reaction to the private support proves that there is a desperate need for the help the group provides, Allen says. None of the Blue Angels is a counsellor or a medical professional. Rather, the support offered is as a peer - someone who's been there and knows what you're going through.
"We can recommend sympathetic doctors or counsellors and share information we've found helpful but that's it," Allen says. "We're simply here for hand-holding. We can help because we know how you feel."
One of the many factors contributing to the need for Out of the Blues, says Allen, is the lack of adequate pre- and postnatal care. "Health care is not what it should be, with many women saying they feel they're just a number, and many reporting birth trauma which is a huge factor in PND," she explains.
"Post-birth, women don't have access to home visits from health care professionals unless they pay privately, and it's not covered by insurance. Equally, some insurance companies don't cover mental health, and those that do have restrictions or require referrals."
Allen says many women tell stories of doctors keen to simply prescribe medication and leave patients to fend for themselves. "Doctors don't seem to be routinely referring to counsellors. Recent research has shown a two-pronged approach with both medication and professional counselling may well be the best bet," she explains.
Another factor that prevents women from seeking treatment is the continuing social stigma surrounding mental health issues, even when the causes of the illness are so overwhelmingly physical, caused by pregnancy and childbirth.
"Lots of women find it difficult to talk to their family and friends about how they're feeling, as they don't want to be judged," Allen says.
And those closest to us aren't always in a position to assist. "Families ... haven't necessarily experienced it and don't know what it's like. One of the key things I found was that I needed to talk to someone who would validate how I was feeling," Allen says. "It shows you you're not alone. You're not insane. You're not a terrible mother - all the things you are feeling instead of what you think you should be feeling."
The resulting situation is, for many women, quite desperate. "You really shouldn't have to fight to get help when you've already hit rock bottom."
Although the group began in Dubai, the Blue Angels have been contacted by women in Abu Dhabi and as far away as Qatar. "It would be great to set up similar support networks in other emirates and around the region, since we've shown that there is a need," Allen says. "One of the Abu Dhabi-based ladies said she'd be interested in hosting a coffee morning, so we'll have to see what happens there."
Looking to the future, Allen's hopes for the group are high. "I'd like to see the group become obsolete," she says. "That would mean the medical provision has improved to the point where there's no need for the group - although of course there will likely always be a place for peer support as a part of comprehensive pre- and postnatal care."
One mum's story
"I hated my new life and wished I could go back to work again, have a lie-in - or any form of sleep more than 30 minutes - and actually be called by my name and not just 'Cameron's mummy'. I broke each day up into sections just so I could get through it; I knew if I could make it to lunchtime, I'd hopefully get a break when Cameron had his nap. But then I dreaded him waking up, because I had no idea what to do with him in the afternoon until dinner and bath time.
"I found playing with a baby so boring, and I thought I must be the worst mother ever - how could everyone else make it look so easy? And how did they find the time for anything apart from the baby, like making delicious home-made food? Everyone used to say sleep when the baby sleeps, but my husband was away at least two weeks out of every month and I had to cook, clean and wash in those small opportunities. I found life so lonely. It was simply horrific having a baby 24 hours a day, seven days a week on my own with no break." – Louise Hickman, British mum
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