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‘Where you go … we go’

Abby Hollingsworth (left) and Hannah Kirkland, two of the founders of The Ruth Project Wairarapa. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Ruth Project helping new parents to breathe
ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL meets the women helping Wairarapa parents on their mental health journey.

When asked to describe her experience of postnatal depression, Abby Hollingsworth is matter of fact: “It’s like being down in the depths of the ocean, and you’ve got no idea which way is up.”

“I’d had enough – I was tired, and everything seemed never-ending,” she said.

“I saw the pain in my husband. I thought I was failing my kids. I thought my only option was to die – that way, people could just move on with their lives.

“Post-natal depression is more than just ‘the baby blues’. It can be deadly.”

Masterton mum-of-three Abby is the director of operations for The Ruth Project Wairarapa, a non-profit, community-based organisation, set up to support and “walk alongside families throughout their perinatal mental health journey”.

The Ruth Project, founded by Abby with close friends Hannah Kirkland and Helle Rosenberg in 2019, and supported by a pool of volunteers, supports families affected by mental distress to “survive between the appointments” – helping them to adjust to and manage day-to-day life with a new baby.

With close to 100 families on its books, the organisation offers everything from coffee mornings and support groups, to practical support around the house, to food deliveries, to simply having “someone come and cuddle baby so Mum can have a shower”.

The organisation, open to people of all backgrounds and cultures, is named for the Biblical figure of Ruth, specifically this quote from Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

The Ruth Project was inspired by Abby’s own journey with severe postnatal depression and anxiety, from which she feels “lucky to escape with [her] life.”

Her experience is far from unique: worldwide, an estimated one in seven mothers, and one in 10 fathers, experience mental distress after the birth of a child.

The goal of the Ruth Project, Abby said, is to be “the fence at the top of the cliff” – filling gaps within the health system, and providing early intervention before families’ mental health can reach breaking point.

“We keep saying that it takes a village to raise a child – and the community needs to be prepared to step up and be that village,” she said.

“Our doctors, nurses and midwives are awesome, but they often don’t have the resources to help outside of their health portfolio.

“People may, for example, be getting help from a psychologist or counsellor – but in the meantime, they’re overwhelmed, they need to fold the laundry and pick up the groceries, and they just need someone to sit them down and make a cup of tea. They feel like they can’t ask for help, because they’re scared to be a burden on friends and family.”

“So, that’s where we come in – offering that extra pair of hands and building that supportive and loving village.”

Abby, mum to Lucy, Zane and Troy, struggled with depression and anxiety after the births of all three children – which she says was compounded by work pressures and unresolved grief from previous miscarriages.

Plus, her children are all close in age, giving her body little time to recover from the physical toll of pregnancy and birth.

Her mental health deteriorated after Troy was born – though she says it took her a while to recognise just how dire the situation was.

“It got to the point where my husband had a breakdown – he had no idea what we were going to do.

“We ended up getting an appointment with a psychiatrist. They told us, ‘you two are in crisis – and if we don’t do something now, Abby’s not going to make it.’

With assistance from medication and psychotherapy, as well as working on nutrition and exercise and receiving “hands-on help” from various agencies, Abby was able to “replenish and heal”.

Though she is in recovery, she still feels a deep sadness when reflecting on her experience.

“I’ve known so many mums and dads that have been through the same – and have been let down by the system.

“We can’t do this on our own. So, I started making some plans – what good was I going to do if I just sat around and complained?”

Abby started work on The Ruth Project in 2019, working with friend Hannah Kirkland [now the organisation’s director of marketing] – whom Abby supported through a battle with postnatal depression after her son Noah was born.

The new organisation then recruited Helle Rosenberg, who has background in education, in-home care, and community advocacy – and is now support manager, co-ordinating the team of volunteers.

Abby’s first order of business was to set up an online support group – which 30 people joined in the first week.

Eventually, the Ruth Project built up a “solid base” of clients throughout the region – referred by organisations such as Plunket, as well as by midwives and social workers – and was registered as an official charity in May 2020.

Clients can receive a range of different supports, depending on their needs: volunteers can connect parents with health services or community organisations, or provide in-home care, such as assistance with housework and transport, helping with meal plans or providing food, referrals to professional cleaning services, or help caring for other children and pets.

Volunteers can also guide clients through breathing and meditation exercises, exercise alongside them, or even simply offer “company and friendship”.

“A lot of our clients just need someone to sit with the kids while they have a lie down – or someone who can just listen.

“We’re not mental health professionals – but we can remind our clients that they’re a good mum and dad, and they’ve got this.”

The Ruth Project also connects clients through support groups, both in person and online, which kept going virtually during the various covid-19 lockdowns.

At present, Abby and her colleagues are working on raising funds to pay wages, supply software for podcasts and educational videos, and eventually employ a counsellor clients can see free of charge.

They are also hoping to expand their volunteer pool so they can assist more families.

The Ruth Project team is particularly passionate about educating the community about postnatal depression – to help reduce the stigma so more people can ask for and access help.

The stigma, Hannah said, is often influenced by our culture’s romanticised view of motherhood, and the stereotype of women bonding instantly with their babies.

“In my depression, I felt disconnected from Noah – like he wasn’t truly mine. But I was so scared to tell anyone – I thought he’d be taken away from me,” she says.

“Society definitely has its views on how women should be with their children. And things like social media don’t help.”

She and Abby said they are thrilled with the community’s positive response to The Ruth Project – and have been heartened to see their clients “celebrate the little wins”.

“It’s always amazing to see them connect with each other, to turn a corner in themselves, to realise they can actually do it,” Abby said.

“And it’s awesome to know we are helping people just like us. There isn’t a lot we regular citizens can do to fix the system. But, here in Wairarapa, we can care for and support the people who are struggling in our own backyard. And that gives me hope.”

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