Acting on Mental Health Problems

A play that challenges perceptions of perinatal mental health.

A dramatisation of the anguish and doubts experienced by many women during pregnancy and in the early months of parenting aims to help mothers realise that they are not alone.

Discussing mental health is difficult, despite its ubiquity. Around one in five women experience a mental health problem during pregnancy or in the year after childbirth. Many are hesitant to ask for help, but without the right care, perinatal mental illness can become an intergenerational trauma by affecting the mother-baby relationship, and can ultimately increase the child’s risk of mental illness. With the aim of helping these women, Western Sydney University contributed to the creation of a play, which is helping reduce the feeling of isolation for women who feel shame about their ability to cope.

Dr Diana Jefferies, senior lecturer from the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Western Sydney University, wanted to give a voice to women who experience mental illness in the perinatal period. With more than 25 years of experience as a mental health nurse, Jefferies investigated historical representations of mental illness after childbirth. She used this research to contribute to Lisa Brickell’s Mockingbird, a black comedy about motherhood and mental health. The play follows four generations of Brickell’s family through mental illness after childbirth.

The play separates the women from the medical accounts normally used to describe their mental illness. Actors in the performance interact with a masked character that embodies their thoughts, to build a picture of their lived experience. “It acts as a powerful vehicle to promote empathy and gives patients a chance to share their experience,” says Jefferies.

Mockingbird has been performed at conferences for healthcare professionals to encourage them to view perinatal mental health in a different light. It has also been performed to sold-out audiences in Melbourne, Sydney, and around New Zealand, seen by around 2,000 people.

Jefferies hopes to see Mockingbird performed to wider audiences in regional NSW and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She believes that bringing issues out into the open is the first step towards understanding and improving mental health care for women and their babies.

Need to know

  • Mental illness during the perinatal period can harm both mother and child.
  • Western researcher, Dr Diana Jefferies, contributed to a play about mental illness after childbirth.
  • The play has been seen by 2,000 people.

Meet the Academic | Doctor Diana Jefferies

Doctor Diana Jeffries is a senior lecturer in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Western Sydney University. She has 27 years clinical experience in mental health, drug and alcohol nursing and HIV. Her academic background is in the humanities and her research program examines historical and literary representations of mental illness after childbirth to investigate the cultural background of stigma.

She is very interested in how the arts, such as drama and performance can be used to disseminate research findings in health. This interest was sparked when her historical research was incorporated in a play, Mockingbird, which has been performed throughout New Zealand, Sydney, Norway and Melbourne. 

Doctor Jeffries is also interested in communication systems in nursing. She began her research career at the Centre for Applied Nursing Research which is a joint facility between South Western Sydney Local Health District and Western Sydney University with an interest in communication systems in nursing. In collaboration with other researchers, she developed evidence-based policies in nursing documentation, nursing clinical handover and the nursing support of patient nutrition. These policies have become official policies throughout both Sydney and South Western Sydney Local Health Districts. This remains an area she continues to research and teach.


This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.

© Lisa Brickell © Felix Mooneeram/unsplash
Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.