Toni Evans was having lunch on the beach near her home in Port Talbot, South Wales with her husband Ieauan. To outsiders, they likely seemed like a happy couple enjoying a break from looking after their two young children, Harley, five and newborn Sarah.
But three days earlier, the mother-of-two had tried to take her own life - a result of an unknown battle with postpartum psychosis.
And this seemingly peaceful scene was about to be disturbed by more troubling thoughts from Evans.
Losing touch with reality
“I turned to Ieauan and said, ‘What if I’m really dead?’’ says the 35-year-old mum. ‘I said, ‘What if this is my journey to the other side and neither of us know what it’s like?’ He frowned and replied, ‘But we are here and we are eating lunch?’
“Then I started asking him about a brown and green lampshade we owned and asked him if they were ‘real colours’. He looked at me, confused but we didn’t really discuss it further. We carried on eating lunch but we had no idea at that point that my words meant that something was seriously wrong.”
In fact, her strange questions were the sign that she was suffering from the first stages of postpartum psychosis, a frightening but often short-lived illness for mothers and families.
Typical symptoms include hallucinations, delusions and mania. According to the charity Action for Postpartum Psychosis, around 1,400 new mums develop the illness each year in the UK.
It is not – as some people think – a more severe form of postnatal depression PND. In fact, many mothers who suffer from it have no symptoms of depression at all.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case for Evans, who had already spent seven weeks in a specialist Mother and Baby Unit for PND 300 miles away from her family home. The attempt on her own life came two months after she had been discharged. But the couple had no idea their world was about to be turned upside down again.
“We went to bed that night after the beach and next morning I got up at 5.30am and was completely elated,’ says Evans. ‘I felt great and started doing my hair and make-up and felt so excited about the day. I now know that this was a sign that I was having a manic episode.
"My husband got the kids ready and knew I wasn’t acting ‘normally’ but didn’t know what to do because I clearly wasn’t presenting as a danger to myself or the children.
"But the strange thoughts continued. At one point that day, I saw a nursery nurse go into my neighbour’s house and thought she was coming to get Sarah. Then I wondered, ‘What if this isn’t Sarah?’ and my imagination ran wild and I thought she’d been swapped for another baby.
"Thankfully, I had a meeting with the perinatal mental health nurse that very day and I’ll be forever grateful to her for immediately recognising that something was seriously wrong,” says Evans.
“She walked in to find me dancing with happiness around the house and asked me if I needed something from the supermarket and disappeared. I now realise that she was making some calls to get me help. She returned and to my surprise, Ieauan was with her.
“They explained to me that I was not very well and needed to be seen by a hospital but even that didn’t faze me. I wanted to sing and dance and talk to anyone who would listen to me!”
As there were no beds available in the previous Mother and Baby Unit (MBU) she had attended and no local MBU available, Evans was referred to an acute mixed mental health ward and found the difference to be enormous. This is why she wanted to share her story to highlight the lack of MBUs around the UK.
“Hospital environments are very different to being in an MBU and I really didn’t want my children visiting me on the ward,” she says. “MBUS’s have more of a homely, comforting environment and the facilities are geared towards mums with young babies and visiting families. But hospital wards can be chaotic and you don’t really want your children seeing you there.”
She was discharged from the mental health ward after four weeks of treatment and has campaigned successfully for a local MBU to open in her part of South Wales. She is now back to good health and studying to be a mental health nurse so she can help others in her position.
“I’m so passionate about maternal mental health and very glad we now have an MBU nearby that can look after mothers and their children in a safe, comfortable environment,” she says. “It will make such a huge difference to mothers who find themselves in the same, scary place I found myself only three years ago.”
For support and further information on postpartum psychosis visit www,app-network.org.
Watch: How can I improve my mental health?