Interview with COPE Founder Dr. Nicole Highet
We were lucky enough to interview the lovely Dr. Nicole Highet, COPE’s founder and executive director. The Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) was established in 2013 and aims to support women and their families to achieve strong and enduring mental health during pregnancy and the year following birth.
What motivated you to start COPE?
I have always been passionate about women’s emotional and mental health – especially around the time of having a baby when there are so many adjustments, expectations and when, not surprisingly, women are more likely to develop mental health problems than at any other time in their lives.
I also saw the need to take a preventative approach. Whilst there are a number of organisations that do important work around postnatal depression and anxiety, I saw the need to focus on it in the context of the bigger picture.
There are so many challenges that a woman may face during her journey into motherhood that impact her emotional and mental wellbeing, including problems conceiving, miscarriage, stress, changes to her relationships, birth trauma, breast-feeding difficulties, ambivalence about motherhood and social isolation (just to name a few!). And too often these challenges are not talked about in a real and honest way.
Whilst the journey differ from one woman to another, so many women feel high levels of pressure and expectations – be it from themselves or those around them – and they then don’t speak up to say that they are struggling and so they don’t get the support and help they need.
For example, COPE’s research shows for that 74% of women who had antenatal depression and/or anxiety did not get help until they reached the point that they could no longer cope. That is almost three in 4 women!
So I started COPE to bridge that gap. I want to empower women with high quality information about these topics so that they feel reassured, know that they are not alone and not at fault and know how, when and where to get help.
What advice would you have for a Mama currently experiencing PND or anxiety?
Firstly, I would say to anyone experiencing PNDA that it is NOT their fault. Just like it is not your fault if you have high blood pressure in pregnancy or a breach baby, it is not your fault or a personal weakness or failing if you have PNDA (or, for that matter, if you have an unsettled baby, are unable to breastfeed despite wanting to, have emergency caesarean and so on).
It’s critically important for ALL Mamas to be aware of the signs and symptoms of anxiety in pregnancy and following birth, as well as antenatal and postnatal depression – so you can get help early. The sooner you get help, the sooner you can recover. Too often women put the early symptoms down to being just a normal part of pregnancy or having a baby (e.g. hormones, tiredness). They then miss the early signs of something more serious and help is not sought until the condition has progressed – robbing them of special times at this precious stage in their life.
So if you think that something isn’t right, don’t wait. Don’t try to just “get through it.” Get help early. You don’t have to be on the edge of not coping to benefit from help.
What advice would you give someone to help support a mama going through PND or anxiety?
My first piece of advice is that ALL Mamas need to be aware. Be aware of your expectations for motherhood and be open to the fact that everyone’s journey into motherhood is different. Raise your awareness around the symptoms of PNDA so you can be there to identify and support others around who may be struggling. We need to be open and honest about the challenges that come with motherhood, to allow others and ourselves permission to talk, be heard and feel supported.
When it comes to supporting others, the best thing we can all do is drop the façade. There are good days and bad for all of us, that is simply the reality. Sure some women will have more challenges than others, but it is not a competition and those who are having more challenges are not causing them by doing something “wrong.” By just being open and honest, and acknowledging that it can be hard, we can all create an environment of support and understanding.
If someone you know is struggling with anxiety and/or depression talk about it. Let them know that it’s common and listen to what they have to say. Don’t give up on them because you feel you are not getting anything back – they may feel so depleted that they have nothing to give right now. Stay with them and let them know you are there for them. Try and help with small things – babysitting, cooking a meal – these will all make a huge difference when someone is struggling with the demands of depression/anxiety and the demands of pregnancy or a new baby. Encourage and support them to get help.
What is your vision / future plans for COPE?
We at COPE want to challenge the expectations surrounding motherhood and abolish the stigma that exists and prevents women from speaking up and getting help early. We want every pregnant and postnatal women in Australia to be screened for perinatal mental health conditions and to be informed and empowered with timely, relevant information right across the time of having a baby – from the moment she finds out she is pregnant right through to the first year and beyond.
To facilitate this we have developed the Ready to COPE email guide. Expectant and new mums provide their birth or due date when they sign up, and each fortnight they receive timely information about what to expect when it comes to their emotional and mental health, especially around all the challenges that people are not talking about.
By signing up, you will be more aware, informed and assured that there are a range of challenges that women face, and you are not the only one. It also helps you to identify or support others who may be going through a difficult time.
What role do you think face to face has in a mums wellbeing?
Face to face contact is very important and that’s why I love what Mama Tribe is doing and what it stands for. Becoming a mum can be an incredibly isolating experience. Personally, when I became a mother the loneliness was one of the biggest challenges that I face – and was not expecting.
Social media has its place, but it is not necessarily real, and can feed into the myth that motherhood is supposed to be like a perfect TV commercial. Face to face contact is invaluable at this time of life – and all the better if it is based on openness and genuineness – nothing beats that!
Tell us about your background?
I am a Doctor of Psychology and have specialised in perinatal (that’s pre and postnatal mental health) for around 25 years. I was Deputy CEO of beyondblue for 13 years, where I recognised the need for a dedicated focus on emotional and mental health in the perinatal period, so I established COPE as a not for profit organisation in 2013. I am also a mum of two, partner, and a crap home-keeper!
Have there been any defining moments or stand out accomplishments with COPE that have made you proud?
Right now I am extremely proud of our Ready to COPE. I want every pregnant woman and new mum to be equipped and empowered with information that women so often say that they wish they knew about earlier. Ready to COPE is part of a change that we desperately need when it comes to supporting mums at this often challenging and isolating time of life.
If you’d like to gain insights and feel supported as you travel through motherhood (or pregnancy!) you can sign up to Ready To Cope here. You’ll get free emails that track with where you are on your journey and focus only on your emotional and mental wellbeing.