We catch up with Catherine Carver and Hannah Bissett about the power of sharing stories in aiding recovery from mental illness, especially when professional services are stretched.
After giving birth to her daughter, Catherine Carver suffered from postpartum psychosis. “I was completely manic,” she says, “but I was also very paranoid. I was convinced that ninja social workers were living opposite me, and they were plotting to come in, steal my baby, and murder me.”
Nearly two years ago, only months since her experience of psychosis, Catherine wrote about it for Mosaic. Had she ever shared her story before? “No, not at all,” she says, “I’d hidden it.”
“At that moment, I felt like I was standing up for all those mums like me, by writing a piece that said: I’ve had it, and here’s the truth of it. Let’s not feel shame.
“Especially because I had felt shame. I felt so apologetic towards my baby. I felt like I’d inflicted something on her. And I felt apologetic towards my husband; this is not how his experience of becoming a dad for the first time should be."
© Alice Mollon for Mosaic
Catherine first made contact with Hannah Bissett through the Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP) peer support network – a service which allows mothers who have suffered with psychosis to share their experiences.
For Hannah, the network had been life-changing. When she had postpartum psychosis, the mother and baby psychiatric unit where she had been admitted had only two beds – and the other was empty.
“When APP set up peer support in 2012, I went to the first ever training to be a volunteer,” Hannah says, because she’d never met anyone else with the same illness.
“On the APP forum, I could read other people’s stories, which I found massively helpful. Just knowing that you’re not alone… before that I felt like I was the only person who it had ever happened to.”
Since then, Hannah has continued to work for APP, currently as Peer Support and Regional Reps Coordinator. One of the organisation’s main aims for this year is to ensure that postpartum psychosis is covered as standard in midwifery training.
“Often the feedback that we hear at APP is that people don’t want to scare pregnant women by telling them about psychosis. But I can tell you, it’s a hell of a lot scarier when it happens, and you’ve never heard of it before.
“If only my family and friends had at least heard of it, and knew it was treatable, and that I could get better. Yes, health professionals will tell you that, but you don’t fully believe it, do you?”
Catherine replies firmly: “No."
Publishing her story was terrifying, Catherine says, but the process of writing it she found cathartic.
“It helped me… to bring some order to what had been a rollercoaster, a spider diagram sort of craziness. It also involved remembering… trying to remember things which I hadn’t been doing, because I didn’t really want to. I didn’t want to open that can of worms.
“But it also felt like, I think, empowering is the right word.”
Hannah agrees: “Definitely. It’s people like you, Cath, telling your story. Being that human face, because as humans we just fear the unknown, don’t we?
“I didn’t know anybody with much of a history of mental health problems before I had one. It wasn’t something that had ever really come into my consciousness.”
“And it’s also down to people being willing to publish something which is a description of a story, an account of an experience,” Catherine adds. “Rather than what tends to hit the papers, which is the bad news.
Catherine Carver recounts her terrifying journey into postpartum psychosis – and how she found healing in unexpected ways.
“We need to hear stories that say: this person had postpartum psychosis, this was their experience of it, this is where they got treated, and they got better.”
She turns to Hannah and says: “I think the training that you’re starting to do is a phenomenal step forward.”
“Yes… we’re trying to make sure that everybody who comes into a pregnant woman’s horizon knows about this illness, and what to do,” says Hannah. “The strength in our training is lived experience, and those real stories. Someone telling their story will make an impact more than any of those eminent clinical people – because people will remember it.”
She likes to think her story may have stuck in people’s minds. “If they come across somebody in the future, they’ll go, ‘I remember hearing what happened to Hannah, I need to make sure that that doesn’t happen to this person. Get her the right support, and the right help.’”
“That’s why we do it, isn’t it?” says Catherine, nodding.
Read our other pieces celebrating the impact of five years of Mosaic stories – including updates on our stories on teens in Iceland, safer surgery in Mongolia, and the swallowing disorder dysphagia.
For support and information on postpartum psychosis, contact Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP), or visit APP on Twitter. In the UK and Republic of Ireland, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the USA, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK.
Catherine Carver has previously been employed by Wellcome, which publishes Mosaic.