“It’s such a huge thing to have a baby. It’s the biggest worry - if you’ve had mental health issues in the past - will it rear its ugly head again? I would hate for the wheels to come off during pregnancy or post pregnancy.”
This question is at the heart of a moving new documentary by Sheridan Smith that explores her struggle with perinatal panic attacks and anxiety.
Sheridan Smith: Becoming Mum aired on ITV last night, providing an inside look at the Gavin & Stacey star’s experience of her first pregnancy through the wider lens of maternal mental health.
The actor and her partner Jamie welcomed their baby son Billie earlier this year. Prior to his arrival, Smith embarked on a mission to find answers for women like her who worry about how being pregnant will affect their mental health.
Smith, who has been open about her battle with depression and anxiety in the past, stopped the medication she was on when she became pregnant – but then her panic attacks returned.
“I’ve still got these underlying issues so I went back on the medication,” she explains. “That was the right thing to do, but I constantly worried it is going to affect the baby, feeling really selfish, guilty, feeling shame and not knowing who to talk to about it.”
Scrolling through comments on social media, Smith realised that huge numbers of pregnant women shared her concerns, and were equally scared about discussing them.
The Maternal Mental Health Alliance estimates that one in 10 women develop a mental health issue during pregnancy or in the first year after having a baby. However, a psychiatrist who specialises in maternal mental health tells the documentary that anecdotally, this figure may be closer to one in three, with traumatic issues from the past often surfacing during this time.
“I think little things that I hadn’t realised how big they were deep down and I pushed them down,” Smith says. “Like everyone does. And eventually you explode. You can’t keep pushing it down forever.”
The topic of perinatal mental illness is still not widely understood. But with suicide as one of the leading causes of death for UK women during the perinatal period (according to the Maternal Mental Health Alliance), conversations like the one that Smith is starting could not come at a more vital time. Most women, like Sheridan, find that their conditions are more manageable with the right support in place; and talking about it is an important first step.
Becoming Mum sees Smith meet other mums who suffer from mental health issues, as well as visiting various community projects and undergoing therapy to delve deeper into her own problems.
The documentary won immediate praise as it aired last night, with people taking to Twitter to applaud Smith’s empathetic and personal approach on a subject that is still mired in taboo.
Smith, who describes motherhood as her “toughest role yet”, ended up giving birth under lockdown which added to her anxiety, but she was also able to show other women what that process looks like.
“What I’ve learnt during this documentary is that the worst thing you can do is to close off,” she says. “[…] You don’t need to feel ashamed or guilty for all these horrible feelings I have felt too, like you think you’re not good enough. It’s okay to need help.”
Sheridan Smith: Becoming Mum is available on the ITV hub now.
If you need help with perinatal mental health issues, seek support with the NHS, Mind or the Maternal Mental Health Alliance. For confidential support call the Samaritans in the UK on 08457 90 90 90 or visit a local Samaritans branch.
Images: ITV, Getty