Over his 25-year career, there are few stones that Louis Theroux has left unturned. The UK’s most beloved documentary-maker has tackled everything from polyamory to assisted death, eating disorders and sex trafficking – and that’s just in the last couple of years. His distinct, unassuming charm and curiosity now turns to the early challenges of motherhood, and sheds light on an under-explored experience that many women in Britain are living through.
Louis Theroux: Mothers On The Edge introduces us to mums struggling with severe mental illness in the wake of giving birth. On the specialist mother and baby unit of London’s Bethlem Hospital, Theroux meets first-time mum Catherine and her 6-month-old son Jake. After his birth she struggled with severe anxiety and depression, and was later admitted by a psychiatric perinatal team to the hospital, where she’s been under section for four weeks.
"I think I’ve had a lot of issues bubbling under the surface for most of my life and it just exacerbates it, having a baby," Catherine tells Theroux in the film. "It’s such a massive change in your life as well and no one can ever prepare you for that." She explains that she has struggled to bond with baby Jake, and the pressure to make it seem like she’s managing well doesn’t help either. Using her Instagram page filled with beautiful and emotive photos of Jake as an example, she says: "It’s almost I have to pretend everything’s okay [on Instagram] in that I have to tell everyone that I can cope when at home it’s a completely different story."
Catherine and Jake live together on the hospital site where she can be under 24-hour observation by the staff while still considered to be at risk of harming herself. In Bethlem’s centre, Theroux also introduces us to Barbara, who has very recently been admitted to the unit with postpartum psychosis. Much like the estimated one in 1,000 new mothers who suffer from postpartum psychosis, Barbara had no history of mental illness until experiencing hallucinations after giving birth.
Bethlem’s lead psychiatrist, Dr Trudi Seneviratne tells Theroux that we’re really lucky here in Britain because we have a growing number of mother and baby units. "And actually, we know that it’s good for both of them, mother and baby, to be treated together. To sever that biological connection and the psychological connection would be a disaster." Between interviews with experts, the mothers experiencing extreme mental illness and their partners, we’re given a stark and emotional view of just how much the reality of new motherhood can differ from the idealised version we’re used to being presented in society.
According to the film, the average stay at a specialist facility like this is about 10 weeks, although that can vary depending on each mother’s circumstance. At a unit in Winchester, Theroux meets Lisa, who is close to being discharged. She had postnatal depression with her previous children and after the birth of her third child, Isabella, started to experience psychotic episodes. Her journey is a challenging one to watch too, particularly as she recounts feeling like she was "nailing it" when Isabella first arrived and then quickly feeling that she wasn’t able to take care of any of her three children at all.
Throughout the documentary, Theroux follows these three women’s progression within (and eventually beyond in some cases) the mother and baby units to unpick the heavy burden that they carry at an already challenging time. Between hard-to-watch scenes in which women open up about how difficult it has been to feel sincere love for their babies and the panic that grips an entire ward when one mother disappears, there’s a lot to learn. In exploring the "challenge of caring for two people in the most vulnerable state of their lives", Mothers On The Edge exposes a reality of some women’s experience of motherhood that, whether you have children or not, you’ll struggle to look past.
Louis Theroux: Mothers On The Edge is on BBC Two on Sunday 12th May at 9pm