A mental health campaigner for fathers, Mark Williams lived with PND, alongside taking care of his wife with the very same condition
The day I got married, I knew that it was time for me to become a dad. I didn’t have long to wait, as we found out my wife Michelle was pregnant the following year, and for those nine months I was the happiest I’ve ever been. When Michelle was told she needed to come to the hospital to have the baby, I was beyond excited.
I’d never been in a labour ward before, so was naturally nervous for Michelle. I just wanted her to be OK, but not for one moment did I think we were going to be in there for more than 22 hours. With each passing hour, my anxiety was increasing. I was eager for the baby to come out, and growing more worried for my wife.
Michelle was getting more tired by the hour, and I felt like a spare part. After 22 hours, there was a sense of urgency in the room and the midwives left looking worried. Shortly afterwards, doctors with no hint of expression on their faces, said the words: “Your wife needs an emergency C-section.”
I suddenly felt like I was choking and became short of breath. My heart was pounding and getting louder and louder. I thought I was going to faint. I didn’t want the attention to shift to me when Michelle needed to be the priority, which made me even more uneasy. The thought of losing Michelle and our baby led me to having that first panic attack.
Thankfully, both Michelle and my son, Ethan, survived. But it became apparent a short time after the traumatic birth, that Michelle was suffering from severe postnatal depression (PND).
I was 30 years old and had never known anyone with depression. I was uneducated about mental health and used to think: “How can anyone be depressed?” I gave up my job to care for my wife and son, but I loved the social side of my job and suddenly felt very isolated, even going days without stepping foot out of our front door.
My personality changed as I turned to alcohol to cope
Over the next few months, my personality changed as I turned to alcohol to cope, and became increasingly angry. Vivid nightmares of the birth haunted me, where Michelle and Ethan had died, and I would wake certain it was true. On the odd occasion where I did manage to get out and socialise with my friends, I wanted to get into fights to intentionally hurt myself and distract from the thoughts and feelings in my head. I even began to get suicidal thoughts, and couldn’t seem to control them. Six months after the birth, I broke my hand punching a sofa.
Eventually I realised that as much as I wanted to be strong to look after my wife and son, the truth was that I wasn’t well either. Having been brought up in a working-class community, where my father and his father before him were coal miners, all I had in my head was that I needed to “man up”. I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it. I kept it hidden from Michelle because I didn’t want to impact her mental health.
Michelle had PND for around 18 months, but the most difficult part was not knowing how long it would last at the time. Over the next few years, I continued to suffer from mood swings, and was lying to my wife about going to work. I was isolating myself from people, calling in sick and going for walks alone. I nearly sectioned myself as I felt unsafe, but still had worries of what people would think of me, and became paranoid that nobody liked me. I felt I would be better off dead.
My mental health deteriorated further when my grandfather and beloved mother passed away in quick succession. In 2011, I was sitting in my car before work and had a mental breakdown.
My mind was racing like never before and I couldn’t get out of the car. I couldn’t function. This became the point where I stopped worrying about what people thought of me and knew I needed to be around for my son. I called the charity Mental Health Matters Wales and they talked me through getting help. The person on the phone may have saved my life.
Doctors put me on citalopram and on a waiting list for counselling, but I knew I needed the help now and not later, so I went private. It was at this point that I first confided in my wife, knowing that since I needed to leave work, there was no choice. I didn’t want her to worry or it to impact her mental health.
I was diagnosed with ADHD, and realised I should have spoken out sooner about the PTSD at the birth and postnatal depression
I was off work for around eight weeks and was eager to go back to a job working in mental health. Alongside the medication, I took a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness, and I was lucky enough to be able to turn things around. I was diagnosed with ADHD, and realised I should have spoken out sooner about the PTSD at the birth and postnatal depression. I didn’t bond with my son during the first few weeks, as the birth was so traumatic and was just relieved both he and my wife were alive. There wasn’t this overwhelming feeling of love that I was expecting. I felt like I was different as a father back then, and supporting a partner with postnatal depression can have a major impact too.
Now, my wife and I are fine, and have a great bond with our son. But it’s important we use our story to raise awareness. We need to get the message out that PND can affect both men and women, and that help is out there.
It was a chance meeting at a gym that led me to set up Fathers Reaching Out in 2011, a campaign to support both fathers and the wider family affected by PND. A man I’d never met before mentioned his wife had suffered from PND, and that while looking after her he had a breakdown and lost his home and business. We started speaking openly about it, and I told him things I hadn’t even discussed with my best mates. No one had ever asked him how he felt about it all, and that made me realise that all parents need to be supported. Fathers Reaching Out was born.
Since then, my life has changed for the better thanks to being honest with myself. I’ve travelled the world to speak out about PND, and was nominated for the Local Hero award at the Pride of Britain Awards in 2012, and also awarded the Wales Inspirational Dad of the Year award in the same year.
Today, I’m medication free and have found a new purpose in life. I’m glad for what happened, as it made me appreciate you only get one life. Getting the right support was the best thing, and my only regret is that I didn’t ask for help sooner.
Mark feels unable to cope with his emotions after the traumatic birth of his son. Having never encountered mental health issues before, he struggles to cope alone. Therapy becomes a turning point to help him recover. He opens up about his feelings and finally connects with himself, his wife and son. He now finds purpose in educating others that PND may strike both mums and dads.