'It's that feeling of losing control': Childbirth a challenge for survivors of sexual assault

A group of women are highlighting a connection between past sexual trauma and postpartum depression. They've created resources to support pregnant and new mothers who have experienced sexual assault or sexual violence.

Women seek to help new moms who have experienced sexual violence

Martha Neovard (left) and Sara Beckel are shining a spotlight on the mental health of sexual assault survivors during and after birth. (Submitted)

The flashbacks, depression and anxiety were all-consuming.

When Martha Neovard gave birth to her first child eight years ago, the world seemed so bleak. The Regina woman convinced herself her experience was normal, despite barely being able to function.

She was afraid to seek help.

Neovard had severe anxiety and depression again after giving birth a second time.

By then she had begun to research her symptoms. She sought help from a psychiatrist.

She was finally able to label her experience: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It's that feeling of losing control of yourself and over your own body.- Martha Neovard 

Neovard is a survivor of sexual assault.

After grasping for answers about the intensity of her postpartum depression, she now knows her birth experience resurfaced buried trauma. Some normally routine actions by health care practitioners triggered her. 

"I was given an exam and it hurt really badly and when I told the doctor to stop he said 'I'm almost done.' He didn't stop," she said.

"It's that feeling of disempowerment. It's that feeling of losing control of yourself and over your own body."
There is a gap in services for maternal mental health in the province, according to doula Sara Beckel and counsellor Sarah Ridley, but they are working to close it. (Radio-Canada)

Before Neovard gave birth to her third child, she told the health care practitioners about her history and the treatment she needed. 

Staff communicated with her throughout the process. They got consent if they needed to go beyond the boundaries that had been set, she said. 

"You lose that feeling of helplessness because you are the other-half of decision making."

Creating tools to support women

Neovard works as a birth doula. She provides emotional and physical support to mothers before, during and after pregnancy. She works with Family First Doula Services, owned by Sara Beckel.

Beckel has created two resource packages, in collaboration with Neovard and the Regina Sexual Assault Centre, to add to the Families First Doula Services #Straighttalk series, a collection of free downloads meant to help expecting and new moms.

The goal is to help people who have a history of sexual violence maintain mental health during all stages of childbirth.
Sara Beckel created two resource packages in collaboration with the Regina Sexaul Assault Centre to add to the Families First Doula Services #Straighttalk series, which is a collection of free downloads meant to help expecting and new moms. (Family First Doula Services)

One tool helps mothers identify their needs and triggers, while helping them be proactive about informed self-care. 

The other is a sheet they can give to health care workers, so they can communicate their needs discreetly.

For example, Beckel said using the mother's name rather than "honey" or "dear" are important.
Sara Beckel said consent in the birthroom is helpful for all women, not just survivors of sexual assault. (Shutterstock)

Another goal is to address a lack of service in the provincial maternal mental health system, she said.

"There are definitely gaps and we're working to close them," she said. "There's a lot of mom-to-mom support networks. There's not really a ton of formal groups."

Beckel said cultivating consent in the delivery room is important for all women's mental health, not just survivors. 

Addressing the stigma

Neovard wants to increase education and public conversation. She said negative maternal mental health experiences aren't often talked about because of society's picturesque ideas of birth and motherhood.

There's a huge, huge service gap that we, as a centre, weren't necessarily aware of before.- Sarah Ridley, counsellor at the Regina Sexual Assault Centre

The reality is all experiences are different, she said. 

"It can be exciting and joyful, but it can also be triggering and scary for some people," she said.

Neovard said she wants other moms to know there isn't shame in talking about this. She said it's okay if traumatic memories resurface or if new mothers feel unsafe.

'A huge service gap'

"There's a huge, huge service gap that we, as a centre, weren't necessarily aware of before speaking with Family First," said Sarah Ridley, who is a counsellor at the Regina Sexual Assault Centre.

"There's service providers in our community, but are they competent in that are specifically? I think the answer is no. So we're trying to fill that." 

Ridley said learning about the connection between sexual violence and postpartum depression was "eye opening."
After collaborating with Sara Beckel, counsellor Sarah Ridley said the Regina Sexual Assault Centre wants to increase awareness amongst mental health professionals in the province about mental health support for sexual survivors throughout the process of childbirth. (Trent Peppler/CBC)
Each birth experience is unique, but Ridley said increasing public dialogue and resources for moms can help normalize what women with past trauma might go through, which can lessen shame and trauma.

Ridley said she would like to start a support group targeted at expecting and recent mothers who have a history of sexual assault.

For Beckel, fostering mental health in the province is important because, "it's not just the moms. It's the development of the babies."

She said there is momentum in Saskatchewan and noted the HealthLine's Maternal Wellness Program.

The program has the capacity to engage with about 50 women per month, according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health

Client referrals are received from Saskatchewan Health Authority Public Health Nurses across the province.

The government does not operate postpartum depression or maternal mental health groups. 

"We understand the impact depression and anxiety can have on new and expectant mothers," said a spokesperson in an email.

"They can receive support through their primary provider such as family doctor, obstetrician or nurse practitioner. We have mental health and addictions services available across the province."

Beckel also mentioned an upcoming Saskatoon conference called Our Mothers, Our Future that will be put on in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association from May 25 - 26. Postpartum Support International (PSI) is expected to run a two-day training.