Blue skies are coming...

How can the church journey with families recovering from postnatal illness?


In 2005 I had a beautiful blue-eyed baby girl.  When she was just ten days old I was admitted to a psychiatric unit believing that I had a mission from God to bring about the end of the world.  The first person to arrive at our home that morning was our pastor’s wife.  With gentleness and compassion she helped my husband to call the out-of-hours GP and rallied round an ‘unofficial crisis team’ while we waited for mental health professionals to arrive.

Even in the acute crisis of Postpartum Psychosis www.app-network.org/what-is-pp/ there were three simple things our church were able to do:

1) Be: Making cups of tea in the kitchen, encouraging me to get into bed and cuddle our daughter. Talking about everyday things despite my delusions and holding my hand.

2) Pray: Our elders gathered around my husband to lift us all up to God.

3) Reach out: Our pastor’s wife quickly realised we needed medical help and did not delay.  Friends from the church contacted my midwife, arranged for bottle feeding equipment and co-ordinated feeds while I was admitted.

But what about the long road to recovery after a severe mental illness?  Can churches apply these same simple things when supporting families as they rebuild their life and faith? These thoughts come from my own very personal experience of recovery from Postpartum Psychosis, but I hope they will also help Christians to support families going through many other mental health problems.
 

How can we ‘Be’?


There are so many things churches can do just to walk alongside families in a practical way.  Organise a meal rota, offer to go along with parents to baby and toddler groups, send a text to see if any shopping needs doing.  Invite dads out for a pint - once in a while!  Make sure your pastoral team are up to date with what the family would like in terms of practical support.  Ask the family how much detail can be shared with the church as for some people there is still a huge stigma around postnatal illness.

One thing I would have loved was for my pastoral visits to be less about mental health and more about tea and cake!  I had a lot of professionals involved in my life and supporting me around medication, pace of life and adjusting to being a mum.  Make a few gorgeous cupcakes and pop round, sometimes the small gestures can really speak to someone about how much they are loved.

There are five great tips for talking to people going through mental health problems here www.time-to-change.org.uk/talk-about-mental-health/tips
 

How can we pray?


I had friends in my childhood church who prayed faithfully for my bond with my daughter.  How incredible to see the outworking of those prayers now that she is a secure and wonderful seven year old!  Pray for healing, definitely, but be mindful that it can feel like a terrible disappointment for vulnerable families when healing ‘fails’ to be instant.  Pray for hope in the long-haul.  Pray for moments of beauty in each day.  A few months in to my recovery a wonderful friend at church gave me a small notebook with a butterfly on the front. She suggested I just write one thing each day to thank God for.  It was incredibly hard some days, but I now treasure the notebook as it shows me the love I had for my daughter and the small things I appreciated about her each day even when I felt like a terrible mother.

Read the Psalms and use them to cry out for the family in your own prayer times.  See how pouring out incredibly raw emotions to God is modelled for us in the Bible.  I was incredibly angry with God at times – falling from the euphoria of believing that heaven was imminent to the reality of psychiatric admission and almost a year of postnatal depression was beyond tough.  If you are supporting angry people, try to pray that God will comfort them in their storm.  Blue skies do come in time.
 

How can we reach out?


Please don’t try and support families with mental health problems without equipping yourself with good professional information!  Alongside mindandsoul there are brilliant resources out there for anyone wanting to understand more about mental health.  Look up conditions and treatments on the Mind www.mind.org.uk and Rethink Mental Illness www.rethink.org websites, or download patient information leaflets from the Royal College of Psychiatrists www.rcpsych.ac.uk/expertadvice.aspx.  You may also have professionals working in mental health in your congregation – ask if you can use them as a sounding board.  So often people with incredible skills in their working life don’t get to use them pastorally – and many would love to.

It can be immensely helpful for families if you do a bit of Googling to find out what support is available locally for them.  Exhaustion and the demands of a young family can mean this comes low on the list of priorities!  Two high quality national organisations specifically for postnatal illness are APP www.app-network.org and www.pni.org.uk

If you are part of a small church and would like to be able to access more practical help for families in your congregation, Home Start www.home-start.org.uk  have an excellent national programme of volunteers who will spend time with families in their home.
 

The blue skies


How did our personal story end? I made a full recovery by the time our first daughter was around one year old and began working for two leading mental health charities (Rethink Mental Illness and APP).  Five years later, we had a second daughter – our step of faith baby #2.  Although we had a hugely difficult first year, a relapse of Postpartum Psychosis was prevented with excellent support from a specialist perinatal mental health team.  Baby #2 is now a full of fun two year old.  Through it all, God’s love has remained.

Funnily enough, as I write from our kitchen table just now I can see crystal clear blue skies framed by snowy rooftops.

Naomi is a Trustee of Action on Postpartum Psychosis and trainer for Rethink Mental Illness
Naomi Gilbert, 25/01/2013