Mental health has always been on the periphery of my day-to-day life. As is the case for so many others, I know too many people who have suffered from depression and are no longer here to tell their story. Despite this, it wasn’t until late last year that I became aware of how multifaceted mental health problems are. This shouldn’t have surprised me, given how there are so many different ailments we can suffer from, physically, so why would this not be the case for our mental health as well?
In November 2019, I learned that a friend was in hospital due to injuries sustained as she battled through the darkest moments of postpartum psychosis—a condition I hadn’t previously heard of—months after the birth of her beautiful baby.
I had heard of postnatal depression, but not psychosis. Some quick research told me how this was a condition affecting one in 1000 mothers and included having hallucinations and hearing voices. Terrifyingly, this condition didn’t discriminate, as it could affect anyone during pregnancy or after childbirth and appear suddenly with no prior warning. To learn that a strong, loving, independent woman could suffer so horrendously from an illness that was provoked by pregnancy really shook me, and all the more so since, at the time, I was pregnant myself with my second baby.
Pregnancy as a runner
As a runner, I continued running throughout my pregnancy, and I found myself feeling a mixture of guilt and trepidation. Here I was, fit and strong, enjoying every step and breath of my runs with my baby wriggling away, while another mum was being robbed of the joys of motherhood by a serious mental illness. It felt so cruel. I realised how precarious the journey to motherhood is—the empowerment, counterbalanced by the potential mental repercussions, and not to mention the physical and psychological rollercoaster a woman’s body and mind go through.
Feeling helpless, I wanted to learn as much as I could about postpartum psychosis and the support available in Qatar. Yet, this information was almost impossible to come by. While my friend had been able to access medical support and therapy through Sidra Medicine, relevant local advice online about the symptoms and challenges surrounding perinatal mental health was absent. I realised how mums experiencing symptoms of mental illness in Qatar might have a hard job finding any information on the internet that could help them.
Running for awareness
Since I was (still!) running, I decided to do what I could to make people aware of the myriad of experiences pregnant women can go through, and bring together mine and my friend’s experiences of motherhood. With the support of friends, family, and my coach Caroline (from Fitness by Caroline Drew), I began training for the Doha half-marathon. I was going to run the half-marathon in January 2020 at 33 weeks pregnant and raise money for Mind, the UK mental health charity. I contacted Mind, who were incredibly supportive, and set up a JustGiving page with GBP 100 target. Little did I know, I would go on to raise GBP 1500!
With leaflets from Mind on postpartum depression, I spoke to my colleagues and friends about this illness, and I was stunned by how many women replied to me to tell me about their own experience. Some of my oldest friends had suffered, and I had no idea. This was, again, a moment of humility. Because when I stop to think how many mums there are in my life—in Doha and the rest of the world—and how much humankind suffers from physical and mental illnesses, I should expect to know at least one mum (or dad) who has experienced challenges with their mental health, perinatal or otherwise. That alone was more than enough motivation to spur me on, and thankfully, I had encountered no complications from running at all. If anything, it was the opposite—I noticed how bump would get restless if I left it too long between runs!
Shorter distance, tougher challenge
My training built on my experience from running the first all-female 90K across Qatar, from Costa Coffee on the Corniche to Dukhan Beach, in January 2019. That was my first ultramarathon. My friend, Stephanie Innes-Smith, had organised it, and it is thanks to her that I had fallen in love with long-distance running. The challenge with the 2020 Doha half-marathon, however, was not the distance this time but the need to develop a strong core and maintain safe physical and mental health throughout my pregnancy. As bump grew each week, my centre of gravity changed and my shoelaces became harder to access. The challenge was still there, but knowing that I was able to enjoy mental and physical freedom—when so many others couldn’t—spurred me on each day.
On the morning of 9th January 2020, in the torrential rain, I completed the Doha half-marathon in three hours. While not exactly a breakneck speed, I did run the entire distance which, with my sizeable baby bump, was a feat in itself. In a meaningful coincidence, that same day, my friend was discharged from hospital to begin her recovery at home.
Continuing conversations on mental health (and running)
Continuing conversations on mental health (and running)
I carried on running until I was 41 weeks pregnant and baby Bertie came along four days later, arriving the day before lockdown. After allowing sufficient time to heal from my C-section, I am delighted to be re-lacing my trainers and looking for a new challenge. Mental health issues have been brought to the fore during this year’s pandemic, but it is important to remember that they were always there and will remain for so many people, even as we move out of lockdown.
I hope to visit schools in the upcoming term and open the conversation again on perinatal mental health with staff and school communities, as so many new parents come to Doha to raise their families. As a community, it is vital that we are aware of perinatal mental illnesses so that we can talk about them and support our mums. They are stronger than they know and sometimes need to be gently reminded of that.
Katherine Milton has lived in Doha for the last seven years with her husband Richard and their sons Edward and Bertie, who were born in 2016 and 2020. She works as an IB Diploma Coordinator at the Swiss International School of Qatar, where she also teaches French and IB Theory of Knowledge.