PANDA began following my own experience of postnatal depression.
Immediately after the birth of our third child in 1982, I became euphoric. But within a few days I became very teary for no reason. I was unable to sleep or eat and to say I was restless was a massive understatement. I roamed the hospital, day and night.
In the 1980s, mothers remained in hospital for 5-7 days so eventually, a psychiatrist consulted with me in the hospital. His diagnosis was postnatal depression. He told me:
“You are like a caged lion, once you go home you will be fine.”
I was then discharged.
I deteriorated both mentally and physically over the next 6 months. Somehow during this period, I reached out to four separate health care workers. All to no avail. I was given well meaning, yet unhelpful suggestions and advice. I chose to accept one suggestion from a psychologist:
“As you had never experienced depression before, you will wake up one day and you will be well.”
I kept waiting for that day.
I have no animosity towards any of these professionals: the lesson I learnt was no one knew or were trained to know, anything about postnatal depression. I sought information from the library and found nothing. Not a single word regarding post-natal depression in any books. I felt post-natal depression must be so rare that no one has documented it. I felt very alone.
When our son was 9 months old and all three children became unwell, I hit rock bottom. We visited a doctor who was unknown to me, at a clinic we had never attended before. He explained the severity of my postnatal depression and said he had an interest in it. He and I discussed a plan for recovery. How lucky was I to have found him.
This is when my interest regarding post-natal depression began.
The first steps to a network of support
By September 1983 I was feeling well again, but I was also longing to discuss my experience with someone who had experienced post-natal depression. All the while thinking:
“Why don’t others know about this condition? The road to recovery should not be by chance or luck.”
My Maternal Child Health Nurse, Jean, had been an amazing support during this struggle. Although, from our first meeting she informed me that she did not know anything about postnatal depression, she was happy to support me in any way, and she certainly had. One morning, I decided to contact her to see if she knew of anyone living in my area that may have been diagnosed with post-natal depression and would be willing to have a chat on the phone.
That afternoon Jean called me with five names and phone numbers of woman who had experienced perinatal mental health challenges. They all lived within walking distance of my home, and they were happy for me to contact them. To my surprise when I spoke with the women, they all felt the same. They too were longing for someone to speak with who understood what they had or were experiencing.
This was the beginning of PANDA’s first ever phone contact, not that I knew that at the time. One of the women, Jan, had asked if I could see her that day. Such was her need and mine we arranged to meet that evening in her home, which turned out to be PANDA’s first home visit. We had an instant rapport. We laughed and we cried and we talked until early morning.
As a result of that meeting with Jan, I invited the other woman to my home the next week. They all attended PANDA’s first group. That first evening we all met was both enlightening and rewarding. We decided to meet fortnightly in my home.
Over the next few meetings, it was clear that we were all gaining so much comfort and strength from each other, I thought we should extend our catch ups to the community. Everyone agreed. I drafted our first ever flyer. Jean placed it on the notice board in the Maternal Child Health Centre.
The heading read: “you are not alone” and included a description of the symptoms of post-natal depression.
You are not alone
Initially Jean gave us permission to use the Maternal Child Health Centre’s phone number. But as more and more calls came in, this became too much for Jean to monitor for us.
At Jean’s recommendation, I contacted and met with the then manager of an organisation called the Collective of Self-Help Groups (COSH). This organisation had been in existence for around 3 years and offered advice and support for self-help groups - the legalities, how to maintain groups, group dynamics, any relevant topic concerning self-help groups. Their input and advice was invaluable to establishing our support group. COSH allowed us to use all their facilities as well as their phone number as first point of contact.
Between 1983-84, PANDA grew slowly and steadily. The message was clearer, that post-natal depression was not so rare. At this stage we were also visiting women in their homes and hospitals. During these meetings it became obvious that there was a stigma attached to discussing post-natal depression. I felt that if we could educate both the community and health professionals, the stigma would reduce. Education was imperative.
Word of our support group was spreading, enabling us to engage with several health professionals who had an interest in post-natal depression. We met with the Senior Psychiatrist at the Royal Women’s Hospital, Professor Dorothy Scott (social worker at the Queen Elizabeth Centre in Melbourne), Professor Lorraine Dennistein (Senior Psychiatrist at the Mercy Maternity Hospital), and Professor Anne Buist (Psychiatrist at the Mercy Maternity Hospital). Their input and tireless assistance to PANDA was so valuable in every way.
Many media outlets contacted PANDA to chat about our group. We spoke on morning TV shows, radio and anywhere we were invited to speak. An article published in New Idea in 1985 left us inundated and overwhelmed with calls. The response could not be dealt with efficiently or successfully.
The first event that surprised us all
We decided to hold our first information evening at the Glen Huntly Community Centre. We had been considering this for some time, and this became the obvious juncture for it to occur.
Invites came from the list of names COSH had taken from callers and we advertised in the local Maternal Child Health Centres, Kindergartens and Schools. With the assistance of the then Caulfield Council, we prepared for 60-80 people to attend.
Our guest speakers were Jean and the Senior Psychiatrist from the Royal Women’s Hospital., I spoke on behalf of the group. This first information night was a huge turning point in PANDA’s growth and development.
Instead of expected 60 people, we had over 200 people attend. It was standing room only. Partners, health professionals, aunties, sisters, anyone from the local area with an interest in post-natal depression came along.
The Q&A had to be stopped after an hour and we had to ask everyone to leave. This was the first time post-natal depression had been discussed in such an open forum. It was obvious that perinatal mental health was much more prevalent than anyone had imagined.
Formalising PANDA and our achievements
During the following months, we chose our name, we drafted a Code of Ethics and a range of formalities and important decisions were made. We received our Certificate of Incorporation on the 7th of November 1985. We formalised our committee of 6. Due to the stigma associated with post-natal depression and the busyness of life, our committee of management changed many times over the first ten years.
PANDA had many volunteers between 1983-1993 and we moved from groups of women gathering in my home for support, to a group achieving many of our goals.
We were respected and recognised as the only group of this kind in Australia. Many health professionals were now keen to hear more of PANDA’s development and growth. We spoke at any agency, centre, group, or conference we were invited to and held four information evenings per year. With education and research, we were all learning so much more regarding perinatal mental health challenges.
We were instrumental in the opening of the 6-bed Mother Baby Unit (MBU) in 1987 at Monash Hospital in Clayton and the opening of the 6-bed MBU at the then Mercy Maternity Hospital in Melbourne in 1988.
In 1990 we were invited to speak at the Marce Society International bi-annual Conference. In the official letter of invitation to speak at the conference they said:
“We believe that your experience and knowledge constitute a significant contribution to the world movement of mental health.”
This was a very proud moment for PANDA. This was as much an invitation as it was a letter of acknowledgement and appreciation for the years of support PANDA had provided to women and their families.
By 1991-1993 I was exiting PANDA. We had received financial support by way of several government grants. Our achievements included:
- We employed three part time workers.
- We had 37 groups in the metropolitan area & 4 in regional areas.
- We developed a reliable and effective phone support line.
- Women heard for the first time that with the right supports they would be well again.
- We offered support to the fathers.
- We were members of a USA and a UK support group, sharing information.
- We had offices at the Canterbury Family Centre, rent free for one year.
Today I am so proud and thrilled that PANDA is stronger than ever, offering great service to the community, wherever it is needed. PANDA is a much larger organisation today, with a multidisciplinary team of staff and volunteers, however, the values, vision and challenges for PANDA have never really changed.
Although each family structure is unique as are the struggles facing each family, the necessary support remains the same, the core values remain the same. The need for funding remains the same, the subject may not be as taboo as in the 1980’s but I believe the stigma remains the same.
The ever changing and growing diversity of care remains the same. The need for continued research and services remains the same and I am so happy to say that the essence and heart of PANDA remains the same.