Home » Nilu's health suffered post-birth, but she thought seeking help was a 'weakness'

Nilu's health suffered post-birth, but she thought seeking help was a 'weakness'

Key Points
  • An estimated one in five new mothers and one in five new fathers experience perinatal depression or anxiety.
  • The perinatal period presents difficulties for all Australians, but migrants often face additional challenges.
  • Nilu Karunaratne struggled with her mental health after her twins were born, but was hesitant to seek help.
This article contains references to depression and anxiety.
When Nilu Karunaratne found out she was pregnant with twins she was overjoyed, but after giving birth, she quickly realised something was not right.
Karunaratne and her husband Dumi Dharmapala moved from Sri Lanka to Australia in 2016 and were excited about a fresh start and a new phase of life.

They first moved to Blacktown in Sydney, but later relocated to the small town of Miles in Queensland, where Dharmapala had a job opportunity as a general practitioner.

A family wearing winter clothing on a mountain

Nilu Karunaratne (second from left) struggled with her mental health after the birth of her twins. Source: Supplied

A few years later, Karunaratne became pregnant, and despite experiencing Graves' disease and gestational diabetes, she describes her pregnancy as a "positive experience".
The twins, Gaven and Gloria, were delivered smoothly via a planned caesarean.
Afterwards, Karunaratne spent nine days in hospital recovering physically, but her mental health began deteriorating.
"I felt something was happening in my brain and my mind ... and one month after the delivery, everything was worse," she told SBS News.

"I was tired, but I couldn't sleep, and every minor incident triggered anger in me, and tears flowed without any reason."

Karunaratne also experienced difficulty breastfeeding due to stress, her twins were not sleeping and were continuously crying.
Due to stigmas around discussing mental health, particularly in South Asian culture, she did not feel comfortable asking for help.
"I was aware of extreme cultural barriers and traditional needs, and due to this I never wanted to share my postpartum anxiety thoughts with anyone," she said.
"Most South Asian people think that we have to do all the work by ourselves ... we never want to ask for help from others, especially for things like depression and anxiety.

"We think that seeking help is a weakness but it's not at all — seeking help is a strength, and now I see that."

What is perinatal mental health?

The perinatal period refers to a period of time that begins at conception and continues through pregnancy and the first year after birth.
Throughout the perinatal period, many new parents will experience changes in their mental health, with an estimated 100,000 Australian families impacted by and anxiety each year.
  • Symptoms vary from person to person and can include feeling frustrated, angry, sad, hopeless or empty.
  • Some people also experience a loss of energy and a lack of interest in activities they previously enjoyed.
  • Insomnia, difficulty connecting with the baby, feeling guilty or worthless and even thoughts of death are also common symptoms.

New data has also found two-thirds of new Australian parents don't have a strong support network of other parents, with one in three struggling to connect with other parents.

According to the , which supports the emotional well-being of expectant and new parents, up to one in five new mothers and are diagnosed with perinatal depression, anxiety, or related mood disorders.
CEO Arabella Gibson suspects the numbers may be higher.
"We know that there's a significant number of people that go undiagnosed," she told SBS News.

"And the number is just compounding every year with new parents and expectant parents."

Cultural barriers and isolation

While the perinatal period can be challenging for everybody, migrants, particularly those living in regional or remote communities, often face additional difficulties.
These can include cultural or language barriers, lack of access to professional services, and limited social and familial support.

For Karunaratne, becoming a parent in the small town of Miles - which is 340 kilometres west of Brisbane and has a population of 1,874 according to the 2021 Census - was a stark change compared to her old life.

A woman wearing a pink sparkly top smiles at the camera

Karunaratne struggled with perinatal mental health and had limited access to support in rural Queensland. Source: Supplied

While she had support from her husband and mother, who also moved to Australia, she missed her busy social life and access to cultural connections.
"I was a very outgoing person; I worked at a bank when I was in Sri Lanka, I had a big social life and everything went upside down and got complicated," she said.

"It was very difficult."

How can regional and remote Australians access mental health support?

In a town like Miles, there are often limited options when it comes to mental health services, and patients often have to drive hours away to access in-person support.
When there are local psychologists or professionals available, Gibson said patients are often hesitant to attend appointments due to small-town connections and fear of their personal issues becoming public.

"We know that people in regional, rural and remote communities are at a disadvantage in terms of seeking specialist help simply because it's not available within their areas," she said.

"Another thing we find in regional rural and remote communities is that there might be a psychologist there, but because it's a small town there's that feeling again of shame and walking into an environment where people might see what's going on when you're not willing to share it at that point in time."
Gibson said while more services are needed in regional and rural areas, options such as telehealth, phone counselling and online virtual communities can offer significant support.
"This is a recoverable illness and with early detection and early intervention, there are lots of services available," she said.
"Reach out for the help that you need, there is no need to go on for months and months and years and years experiencing mental ill health."

For Karunaratne, appointments with an online psychologist enabled her to take steps to improve her mental health.

With the support of her husband and mother, she established new routines, made time for mindful activities such as cooking and yoga, and allocated time for herself to sleep and recover.
Within two months, she said she felt like herself again.
She urges new and expectant parents to practice open communication and not to be afraid of seeking professional support if they are struggling with mental health in the perinatal period.
"(Mental health issues) are not our fault, it's a chemical imbalance in our brain," she said.
"Everyone's story is different, every individual's journey is unique ... but we have to be open, we have to share our stories."
Perinatal Mental Health Week runs from 12 November to 18 November.
Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at .
supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
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