Journalist Jonny McCambridge, who is fully behind the campaign for specialist maternal mental health services, writes openly about his own struggles and the incredible joy of becoming a dad
Less than four months after my only son was born in 2013 I was committed as a patient into a psychiatric ward at Lagan Valley Hospital, deemed by doctors to be an immediate suicide risk. It was the most harrowing experience of my life.
At the time I held a senior position in a daily newspaper in Belfast and was certainly mindful of my professional reputation and the stigma of it being known publicly that I suffered from mental health difficulties. Through my job I had occasionally encountered stories of maternal postnatal depression, but I had never heard of a paternal case. Was it even a thing? If it was, it certainly wasn’t one that was spoken about. And so I didn’t speak about it, not to anyone, until it was almost too late.
To be clear, my own battles with mental health problems went back many years before I was a parent, that was a seed which had been planted long ago. But it was the birth of my son James, added to already formidable work pressures that contributed to a set of forces which brought me to my lowest point. A routine that I had established over years, and which probably protected me, was thrown into chaos when I became a father.
Already operating near the edge of my limits with interminable hours in the office and the relentless oppression of working in the news media, the added responsibility of parenting pushed me past it. Being a father was just one more thing to worry about. It almost became one thing too many.
What makes my story even more infuriating is that I watched my wife deal wonderfully with post natal depression. She talked about it, sought treatment and emerged from the experience stronger and happier. But yet I could not bring myself to say a word, instead allowing myself to sink deeper and deeper into a place of misery and desolation until I could no longer see a way out. When the light at the end of the tunnel goes out then you can no longer see a happy ending for the journey.
But things are different now. After a short hospital stay I was released back to the care of my family and I continued to receive medical treatment for several years. The help is there, you just have to ask for it.
I’ve made changes to my life, I no longer work in such a high-pressure job and I’ve embraced the role of being a father. From a rocky beginning it is now undoubtedly the greatest privilege and responsibility of my life. There are still tough days but I know how to get through them. I’m lucky to have a family who understand and help me and I’ve learned how to ask for help when I need it.
When I was first asked to write this piece I was reluctant. I knew the focus of this edition was on maternal mental health and I didn’t want to do anything which removed the spotlight from that. It’s a huge issue and I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of the mothers who are leading the campaign for better services here in Northern Ireland. They deserve their place.
In the end I was persuaded to write this to help ensure that there are no limits to this conversation and to remind people that there is no section of society which is not affected.
Fathers, and men in general, are stubborn and often restrained by the macho culture we have built around ourselves. It’s hard to admit you have a problem, that you are desperate. It was the hardest thing I ever did. But since I’ve spoken publicly about mental health I’ve been overwhelmed by how many other men have contacted me to say they have suffered too. Men who sometimes dare not tell their own families what they are going through because they think they will be considered weak, not strong enough.
It is not so. The true strength is in talking about it.