Director of the organisation ‘Help Women and Children’, Martha Jesty suggests ways in which local churches can become better equipped to help women suffering from PTSD resulting from childbirth and other associated stressful situations.
Mary (not her real name) is one of dozens of Christian women who approach us for professional counselling, by telephone, e-mail or face to face. We provide this service for women suffering from postnatal illnesses.
“I had an abortion two years ago with the consent of my husband, he is also a Christian. He seems fine but I was never fine. I had nightmares, flashbacks from the horror of what I did, and the worst of all is the guilt, the guilt that is so heavy that I can’t share it with anybody in the church for fear of judgment… And that is why I am here because I know you are not affiliated with any church and you are a Christian.”
I started the organisation ‘Help Women and Children’ five years ago as a result of my two-year healing process during which my husband spent hours listening to my troubled mind. I was in fact suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that had surfaced several years earlier. The church had not been involved in my healing process but my faith is Jesus in His healing power.
It is surprising that symptoms of PTSD may occur in up to 30% of women following childbirth. This means that 200,000 women in the United Kingdom are affected each year. In around 2% of women, these symptoms are sufficiently severe to meet full DSM-IV criteria for PTSD (Ayers and Pickering, 2001; Loveland Cook, 2004). This amounts to around 10,000 women developing PTSD in this country. If PTSD is untreated it becomes chronic and has a huge impact on women and their children.
Despite setting up the non-profit making organisation ‘Help Women and Children’, I have found it extremely difficult to work with churches and their pastors and vicars, both male and female. I believe that this is due to their lack of understanding of women's situations where they have been traumatised by childbirth, rape, abortion and conditions such as fear of childbirth and sexual dysfunctions.
Women are invariably offered prayer but what they really need is a series of non-judgmental counselling sessions where they are listened to and can be helped to overcome the trauma they have suffered so that their lives are improved.
The women that come to us have nowhere to go. GPs prescribe antidepressants that help to some degree, but most women are misdiagnosed with postnatal depression. Often their marriages are collapsing and most of them think that they are experiencing madness. Some of them hate their children; some are even suicidal yet they can’t contemplate the idea of sharing their experiences with Christian leaders. What is the function of a local church if it is not to change lives and positively impact on the core of our society - the family? What can church leaders and church communities learn from organisations that are positively impacting on the lives of vulnerable women? My advice is as follows:-
• Have a professional qualified counsellor on your pastoral team to work with women and their families.
• Train members of your church community in professional counselling.
• Organise a healing clinic where people from the community at large can receive free professional counselling and spiritual replenishment. The use of different counselling approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Person Centred Counselling, in conjunction with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, will be of significant value to women and their families who are in crisis.
• Work together with organisations such as Birth Trauma Counselling that are set up to help families.
If church leaders feel able to implement some, if not all, of these ideas, I believe that this will bring about changes in our society particularly where women and families are concerned. Isn’t that what Jesus did?