Wollongong mum Gabrielle Micallef shares story of postnatal psychosis

Gwynneville mother Gabrielle Micallef suffered with postnatal psychosis shortly after the birth of both her boys David, now 6, and Joshua, 3. Picture: Adam McLean
Gwynneville mother Gabrielle Micallef suffered with postnatal psychosis shortly after the birth of both her boys David, now 6, and Joshua, 3. Picture: Adam McLean

At the height of postnatal psychosis, Gwynneville mother Gabrielle Micallef believed there were surveillance cameras hidden in her house, monitoring her every move.

She started seeing and hearing things that weren't there - such as police sirens and cars that would slow down as they passed her home.

The hallucinations didn't stop there - one day in the shower she looked down and saw that half of her body was scarred and disfigured; other times she saw the face of her late father in place of her baby's.

Worst of all she felt that her husband Andrew was conspiring with the authorities to take her baby, David, away from her.

Post natal psychosis is a rare but serious illness that affects one to two new mums in every 1000, and can put both mother and baby at risk.

It's far more rare than perinatal anxiety and depression, which affects as many as one in five new mums, and one in 10 dads.

During PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia) Week, Mrs Micallef is sharing her story, in the hope that new parents experiencing mental health issues will reach out for help.

"Mums, and dads, often having trouble speaking out, they struggle with that first conversation but I want them to know they're not alone," she said.

"And the sooner they seek support, the sooner they can start feeling better. They will recover, and they will have a beautiful relationship with their baby even if they've had a rough start."

Mrs Micallef, a psychologist, never would have thought she'd suffer postnatal psychosis.

Her and her husband conceived soon after they were married, she had a "textbook pregnancy" and there were no complications for mother or son during birth.

Yet four weeks later, the normally calm young woman started to get quite emotional and distressed. Living in Victoria at the time, she'd had her mum there for the early weeks, but she'd since returned to the Illawarra.

Her husband, she said, was supportive and hands-on, but things "just started to unravel".

"I started getting significant paranoia, I thought people were going to take my baby away and I thought Andrew was part of the problem. I didn't trust anyone," she said.

I started getting significant paranoia, I thought people were going to take my baby away.

Gabrielle Micallef, Wollongong mother of two

"I stopped eating and speaking, I couldn't dress myself. I managed to send my mum a text, with the words 'come back' but then I just pretty much shut down."

Mr Micallef followed the advice of health professionals, and called in the Crisis and Assessment Team, or CATT. His wife was soon diagnosed with postnatal psychosis and put on anti-psychotic medication.

The serious condition usually almost always requires hospital admission, but because of the support Mrs Micallef had from her husband and her mother, who'd returned to Victoria, she was allowed to recover at home.

The medication "zonked" her out and she'd sleep for hours, but it did give her brain the chance to recover. It took some weeks but she slowly started to feel better.

"It took a while for the anxiety and paranoia to subside completely," she said. "As well as the depression and grief that I hadn't been the mother to David in those early weeks that I wanted to be.

"But eventually I started to read to David, and sing to him; to exercise and join a play group and connect with people again."

The young family made the move back to Mrs Micallef's hometown of Wollongong, where she had even better support. Then she fell pregnant again.

"I was aware of the risk that it could happen again, and did consult specialists about that," she said.

"They did want me to start medication straight after birth but I didn't want that.

"For the first four weeks after Joshua's birth I was fine, then the anxiety started to creep in again ...."

One night, Mrs Micallef woke to sounds of people walking past her house, talking loudly. She started to irrationally fear for her safety, and knew she needed to go to hospital.

This time she was admitted to a psychiatric unit at Wollongong Hospital, where she would stay for 10, long, days while the medication started to kick in.

She recovered slowly again and today - with David now six years old and Joshua three - she's back to her cheerful, optimistic self.

She's also a 'community champion' for PANDA, and contributes to different studies into postnatal psychosis.

"I want people to know there is support out there," she said.

Services locally include the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District's Perinatal Mental Health Service and Grand Pacific Health's Perinatal and Early Childhood Program.

GPH program leader Christine Carey said the program has been running for nearly a decade, and provides free short-term therapy for mums and dads struggling with mental health in pregnancy or early parenthood.

Ms Carey said the service works in conjunction with Wollongong Hospital and other local antenatal clinics as well as GPs.

"We see new parents who are struggling with anxiety or depression, difficulties with the transition to parenthood or with grief or loss after a miscarriage or stillbirth," she said.

"We encourage them to seek treatment early, as we know having a well and responsive parent gives a child the best chance of developing well."

Ms Carey said risk factors for perinatal conditions included previous mental health issues, as well as any complications or health issues for the parent or baby during pregnancy or afterwards.

"As a general rule, if there's high distress and if you can't do your normal day-to-day tasks it would be worth getting help," she said.

Local advocacy group, Better Births Illawarra, have been campaigning for increased access to the Midwifery Group Practice program at Wollongong Hospital for three years - for its benefits for mothers and babies.

Better Births Illawarra president Giselle Coromandel.

Better Births Illawarra president Giselle Coromandel.

"This model provides continuity of care by assigning expectant mothers a midwife to care for them throughout pregnancy and beyond," BBI president Giselle Coromandel said.

"It builds that trust and understanding, and research shows that a mother is more likely to then have a positive experience of labour and birth.

"Potentially it could help reduce perinatal depression and anxiety too, so we'd like to see greater access to the program. Currently only three out of 10 women who request to join are granted access."

Ms Coromandel would also like to see a specialist acute mental health unit for mothers and babies in Wollongong. Mother Baby Units provide in-patient care for mothers who are experiencing psychiatric illness in the perinatal period, together with their baby.

"Separating women from their baby can often cause more damage," she said. "Currently women have to travel to Sydney to get this specialist care but I'd like to see funding allocated for such a unit here."

For more information visit panda.org.au or for support call the PANDA national helpline on 1300 726 306.

This story I thought they'd take my baby: one mum's tale of postnatal psychosis first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.