“I had no idea that it was happening to me,” recalls Rachelle Silver.
The general practitioner had just given birth to her daughter Samara, the youngest of three children under four years old.
“I thought I was just exhausted,” Silver says. “The overwhelming feeling was that I was failing, that this was something that I’ve always wanted, I’ve got a supportive family, three healthy children, why am I not coping?”
The 36-year-old struggled with “the most menial tasks”, was irritable with others and crying on the edge of the bed at night as she tried to rock her newborn to sleep.
Silver has diagnosed perinatal depression in others but did not see the signs in herself.
“When it’s you it’s very hard to have insight,” she says. “I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t think it was that.”
Chief executive of Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA) Terri Smith says this is not uncommon.
“It’s probably the most extraordinary transition anyone makes in their life so it’s really hard to know what’s normal, even when you’re a GP,” Smith explains.
Perinatal (the period from pregnancy to one year after childbirth) depression and anxiety affects one in six mothers and one in 10 fathers.
It’s natural to feel unsure, to have days of feeling overwhelmed and to have interrupted sleep, Smith says. But when symptoms persist for two weeks or more then it’s time to get help.
Depressive symptoms include low mood, feeling extremely sad, crying, or having thoughts of suicide, hurting yourself or the baby, while anxious symptoms include worrying, agitation or feeling afraid to sleep in case something happens to the baby.
“It’s quite common for people to have a bad day here or there, so we’re not talking about an individual day of feeling overwhelmed,” Smith says, adding: “It’s useful to remind people that this can happen during pregnancy as well – it’s really common, one in 10 women during their pregnancy will experience anxiety or depression.”
Silver was leaving the doctor’s office at Samara’s six-week immunisation when her GP asked how she was doing.
“I turned around and everything came out,” she says. “That was probably the first person who had asked me how I’m doing. Within a few minutes it was clear what the diagnosis was.”
She was prescribed antidepressants and within three weeks was feeling better and by eight weeks was feeling well.
On a whim, Silver’s mum suggested she and the baby join her parents for a getaway in Byron Bay while they participated in a team triathlon.
“The only catch is you have to do the swim in the team triathlon,” Silver’s mum said.
The once-strong swimmer had become “unbelievably unfit” but felt she could complete the 1.5 kilometres.
“I did the swim and it was so hard – absolutely gruelling. I said to my mum that night I don’t want anything to be that hard again, I want to start swimming again.”
Upon her return to Sydney, Silver joined a swimming squad twice a week at Cook and Phillip Park, while her mum helped look after the children. She noticed her coach was also training people to swim for the English Channel.
“At some stage in my life I’d always wanted to have a great athletic goal and I hate running so I was never going to do a marathon,” she says. Two months later she booked a slot to swim the 34-kilometre English Channel swim.
After three years of training, Silver is set to fly out for the swim on August 13 where she is raising funds for PANDA.
Co-ordinating training with the demands of a young family has been challenging but, with their support, she has managed.
“Many times I’ve second-guessed it but I’ve never seriously considered not doing it,” she says. “My mental strength has increased more than anything, especially in the last six months, once I realised ‘Hang on I am capable of this’. I’ve gained confidence in myself and what I can achieve – I don’t sweat the small stuff so much any more.”
Prioritising herself has benefited her family too. “I was always of the opinion that a happy parent leads to happy children leads to happy family,” she says.
Smith says despite growing mental health awareness stigma persists. This is compounded for many new parents who feel they are failing if they are not coping.
“The message we hear day in and day out is that women really feel as though they’ve failed,” Smith says. “The response from our team is that ringing us today means you’re being a good mum. There’s no failure in it.”
Rachelle hopes to raise $20,000 for PANDA. To support her, go to: https://www.mycause.com.au/page/150414/rachelle-swims-the-english-channel-for-perinatal-mental-health
PANDA operates Australia’s only national helpline for women, men and families struggling with perinatal anxiety and depression: 1300 726 306