Belfast Live - By Sarah Scott
A group of brave Belfast mums are helping each other deal with postnatal depression through an online support group.
PANGS NI, which stands for Post and Antenatal Group Support, was set up by mum-of-two Michelle Bradley following the birth of her first child.
The Glengormley mum was struggling after welcoming daughter Alexis in 2012 but found there was nowhere to turn for help.
Speaking to Belfast Live, 31-year-old Michelle said: "I had a great pregnancy, all I ever wanted was to be a mum. I wasn't scared of labour but then I had quite a difficult birth.
"On the third day I took a massive panic attack linked to the traumatic birth. It lasted four hours, I thought I was dying it was so bad.
"It started a spiral of anxiety and more panic attacks and depression. After four months I took a really bad panic attack.
"I said to my husband I couldn't go on like this, I said it was time to go and see a doctor. I went to see my GP who was lovely but her first point of call was antidepressants but I did not feel I needed them.
"I felt I was connecting with my daughter so I refused and came away feeling flat. Luckily my husband is really supportive and said you have a choice - I can let it get on top of me, or I can keep fighting.
"At the time I didn't think I had any fight left in me, I did not have the energy."
But with the support of her husband, Michelle sat down and started researching postnatal and antenatal depression.
She came across cognitive behavioural therapy, a talking therapy that can help people manage problems by changing the way they think and behave. It is most commonly used to treat anxiety and depression, but can be useful for other mental and physical health problems.
"I contacted my GP and said I don't want antidepressants, I want to see a cognitive behavioural therapist," said Michelle.
"Through the NHS you get one session a month for six months but it was nowhere near enough."
Michelle then started searching for someone she could speak to privately to continue her therapy.
During this search she started looking for support groups where she could speak to other mums going through the same thing.
But when she failed to find anything, Michelle decided to set up her own private Facebook group to see if she would get a response from other mums.
Within a matter of months of setting up PANGS NI, Michelle had attracted dozens of other mums and now the group is made up of almost 200 mums from across the country.
"It really helped me as it gave my journey purpose," said Michelle.
"I am now helping other people and it made me feel better knowing others felt the same way. Other people were going through this too.
"The really good thing about it as well is usually with this type of illness sometimes it keeps you awake at night and there's no one to turn to, but with the group you can post something on the page and there's usually someone else up who can talk to you.
"If you wake up at 4am feeling anxious and post 'this is how I feel', you can talk it through with each other and you start sharing the things that help you," said Michelle, who now has son Cooper with husband Eoin.
Through the group Michelle was introduced to fellow mum Aisling Cooper from South Belfast.
The mum-of-two was also in need of a postnatal support group and she found the help she needed through PANGS NI and is now a key member and administrator on the group, which is private on Facebook.
Speaking to Belfast Live, Aisling said: "With both my pregnancies I was very ill, physically I was sick daily and in a lot of pain when trying to move around.
"I was on crutches and in a wheelchair early on in my pregnancies and that took its toll on my mental health also. It was very discouraging to be constantly sick and in pain.
"My first delivery in 2012 was very slow and difficult, I was in active labour for 23 hours, contracting for four days in total. It was extremely draining on my system and unfortunately had a very negative impact on my experience."
When daughter Mia, now four, was born Aisling was terrified to be on her own.
"I had this brand new little baby and I was on my own, and yet there was so many people all around me," she said.
"All I wanted was to draw my curtain and block them all out but each time I tried to get some peace the curtain was ripped back open and someone was invading my bubble.
"I struggled to breast feed, Mia was very sleepy and would not latch. It caused me a lot of upset and stress and despite asking numerous times for help, I didn’t receive it."
After six weeks Aisling went back to her GP with concerns and said she wanted to speak to a psychologist.
But despite not wanting to try medication she was handed a prescription and told to come back in a few weeks.
"I made another attempt following this appointment with another GP only to be told again to take the medication and it was normal baby blues, it would go away. It did not," she said.
Aisling, who lives with husband CJ in the south of the city, then fell pregnant again with daughter Robin, now 10 months, and experienced a similar pregnancy as with her first daughter but thankfully the birth was not as traumatic.
"Through both my pregnancies I was offered the idea of support," said Aisling.
"With Mia, I was referred at my eight week appointment to the psychologist and that was the last I heard of it. That referral never came through, despite the best efforts of my midwife that was the end of the help I received.
"I was very much left alone and to struggle on with my fears and anxiety. I held on to a lot of anger over the lack of support I received and had it been followed through on perhaps my experience would have been very different and I wouldn’t have suffered with PTSD following the experience I had with my oldest in 2012.
"With Robin I was much more aware of what I needed and what I was asking for. I walked into my first appointment fully prepared to stand my ground and to my surprise they were on it straight away.
"Before even being aware of my previous issues and concerned they went straight into focus on mental health support, had I any fears and what could they do to help me. This time we went through my GP and the hospital, having listened to my fear of being ignored again, sent me off with a letter that gave them two options and that was what they needed to do.
"Having that backup made it much easier to push for it and ask for what I needed. I was given referral to the perinatal mental health team in the hospital and it took around six months to hear back on that but once I got into their services I was extremely pleased by their support and their attention to my needs."
Speaking about PANGS NI, 24-year-old Aisling said: "The group has grown from strength to strength and is a great lifeline to so many mothers, myself included when I just need to talk, and need someone who just gets it.
"I know that someone will be there, even in the middle of the night when I am up feeding the baby, I can go on and just let out my feelings. I can connect with someone else who is feeling the same and offer support to other mums.
"My message to other mothers is simply to talk about it. Keep on talking, the more you talk the less power it will have over you. The less fear it can build in your mind and the stronger you will feel."
She added: "There is an awful stigma surrounding mental illness that makes us afraid to admit in case of judgement and that our children will be removed from us. This is not the truth, there is no shame in suffering, it is ok and you can get past it.
"Your children will not be taken from you and you are not a bad mother for going through it. You will be ok.
"Although a start has been made, much more needs to be done by the government to bring the services up to scratch and meet the demand for it. Simply there just is not enough to meet the demand."
To find out more about PANGS NI visit our Facebook page .