There is growing recognition of the serious nature of maternal mental health problems during childbirth – with one in five women in the UK developing a mental health illness during pregnancy or up to one year after birth (RCPG, 2018), seven in ten hiding or underplaying the severity of their illness, and suicide as one of leading causes of death during this time (Everyone’s Business, 2018; MBRRACE, 2017). Furthermore, services for and understanding of perinatal mental health is patchy, with the threshold for conventional treatments high. This leads to many women with mild to moderate symptoms having little specialist support, leaving midwives, GP’s, health visitors and women’s families increasingly stretched to help, and women and babies suffering, the consequences of which can have dire short, medium and long-term effects.
‘I’m loving being introduced to the artists and trying out things I wouldn’t have done on my own initiative’
Maternal Journal was an interdisciplinary collaborative project, produced by artist and midwife Laura Godfrey-Isaacs, and psychiatrist Carmine Pariante, Professor of Psychological Medicine at King’s College London, which explored the therapeutic potential of journaling as a way to promote wellbeing and positive mental health for pregnant women and new mothers, who have a history of mild to moderate depression and/or anxiety. The project was brokered (and funded) by the Cultural Institute at King’s through its Arts in Mind Scheme, and was supported by midwifery advisor Debra Bick, Professor of Evidence Based Midwifery at The Department of Women and Children’s Health at King’s.
The project involved a series of workshops, facilitated by Laura and Carmine, that included creative activities introduced by visual and craft artists, poets, cartoonists and writers; Hollie McNish, Kate Evans (aka Cartoon Kate), Frances Burden and Rebecca Fortnum & Sharon Boothroyd. At each workshop, one of the artists devised creative exercises, using different writing and visual arts techniques that supported participants to create the journal as an expansive, therapeutic, creative aspect of their care through pregnancy. In addition, the sessions involved participants sharing work they had made in between the meetings and any experiences or concerns they had, therefore building in psychosocial support for participants and cohesion within the group.
Journaling in pregnancy has particular poignancy as it relates to the inevitable marking of time, the nature of the experience as ‘a journey’, the sense of being in a liminal space (a threshold between one state and another), and the creativity of making a baby. It is also commonly a time of great imagination – of the baby, of becoming a mother, of birth – with associated vivid dreams and fantasies – all good material for a journal. It is also a time of great change, challenge, opportunity and vulnerability, particularly if you have a history of mental health problems – so having a creative outlet can be highly productive.
The rich history of female journaling comes about partly due to it being one of the only possible ways for women to write, be creative or express social and political views in the past – when professional engagement wasn’t possible – employing a semi or completely private guise. Therefore, journaling can be seen culturally, even today, as a powerful way for women to document their experiences, and create a social history of their lives.
During the project, participants were connected to this history by looking at some key women’s diaries, journals and sketchbooks i.e. by Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf, Bobby Baker, Anne Frank, and mass observation diaries.
In addition, they researched contemporary artists such as performance artist Bobby Baker – whose Diary Drawings ‘Mental health and me’, documents 11yrs of mental distress and treatment, through a daily drawing practice.
Social media forms like blogs, instragram, and Facebook – looking at the huge number of maternal blogs, such as ‘slummy mummy’ and ‘honest mum’ were also discussed as contemporary diary keeping.
The project received very positive feedback from the women and what was originally planned to be a five consecutive week project during pregnancy, has grown into the postnatal period, with the group now meeting monthly. Most women have kept the journal going and have produced some incredible work – from drawings, paintings, collage, prose, poems and more.
Some of the feedback is documented below:
‘I feel energised and given permission and support to continue to find and establish my own space and voice creatively, at home and outside. Which in turn makes me feel already less anxious and fearful about the impact of this baby on my sanity. Like I will have more tools at my disposal should I feel myself teetering on the edge of depression again. The other aspect which I hugely value is how openly political it is, how different and broad the range of women but all united, I think, in seeing and talking openly about how political motherhood and female mental health and work is. I find this such a relief and support.’
‘The weekly workshops are totally the highlight of my week, they’re fresh, different, so far away from my every day, so relevant to my life currently and exactly what I need. I’m loving being introduced to the artists and trying out things I wouldn’t have done on my own initiative. It’s inspiring and energy giving.’
‘The Maternal Journal as a concept and a working model is fantastic. I’ve found the past 2 sessions joyous, cathartic, hopeful, inspiring and informative. I feel blessed to have access to such a brilliant group.’
‘Creating the artwork itself was both cathartic and therapeutic. I felt valued as a pregnant woman.’
‘Keeping a maternal journal has been a very helpful and positive experience. I think it’s contributed to my continued mental stability.’
Maternal Journal was conceived as a pilot project, mostly centred around the creative and psychosocial aspects of journaling and the group dynamic – however, we are now looking at possible research funding to re-design and run a larger project that could possibly be integrated into more routine NHS care. Exciting collaborations and links have emerged through the pilot and these will be explored during 2018 in order to help build and grow the concept.
Words by Laura Godfrey- Isaacs Retweet This Article @godfrey_isaacs
Films documenting the project can be accessed online here:
The Facebook page has information here:
There is information about the project on the King’s Cultural Institute page here:
Work from the project will also be presented at the Arts in Mind Festival, run by the King’s Cultural Institute and the Institute of Psychiatry at the Denmark Hill site in June 4th – 10th, information TBC. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/Cultural/-/Projects/Arts-in-Mind-Innovation.aspx
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