As a leader in perinatal mental health, Dr Klara Szego has guided hundreds of women and babies out of the darkness of mental illness. We celebrate her pioneering work with a look back at her long career.
Dr Szego retired last year as director of the mother and baby unit at Werribee Mercy Hospital. It’s an unconventional retirement. “I still go in and supervise once a month,” she says. “It keeps me in touch and I really enjoy it.”
There is no one within Mercy Health more qualified to share expertise on perinatal mental health than Dr Szego. As one of the founding staff of the first mother and baby unit at Mercy Hospital for Women, she has spent 25 years overseeing seismic changes in how we care for new mothers and their babies. “There were no units in Melbourne until the late 1980s,” recalls Dr Szego. “Then in 1989 Professors Lorraine Dennerstein and Anne Buist opened the unit at Mercy Hospital for Women. It was the only one in the world run within an obstetric hospital.So it was very groundbreaking.
“When I saw this as a young doctor I thought it was a fantastic idea. So when in 1990 Mercy Hospital for Women was looking for a consultant psychiatrist, I thought ‘This sounds interesting!’ Then I was hooked.”
The ensuing years show Dr Szego’s empathy for parenting under challenging conditions is deep and lifelong. The daughter of Jewish immigrants, Dr Szego’s humanity is informed by their experience of inhumanity.
Her father’s internment in Auschwitz and her parents’ life under postwar repression in Hungary have etched a profound need to alleviate suffering in the vulnerable.
The new mother and baby unit quickly filled with women in need of Dr Szego’s compassion and vision. “When I started out in psychiatry postnatal depression was really misunderstood,” she recalls. “There was this idea it meant you didn’t like your baby. We now understand the vast majority of women are desperately trying to be the best mother they can be.”
The new unit helped drive this slow epiphany in the broader community. “I would regularly see women who had been to many professionals and were told ‘Well this is just what happens when you have a baby, get on with it.’ They were not heard or given help. They were so relieved to finally reach the Mercy unit.”
Dr Szego went on to run the unit in East Melbourne before becoming the first and longestserving director of the new Werribee campus. “While it was a big move, the unit is a beautiful healing environment and Mercy Health has to take credit for being so very supportive,” Dr Szego says. “When we were designing it people said ‘Ask for everything you want and you’ll get half.’ We got it all. It was a very rewarding experience.”
Dr Szego’s career gained even more momentum in the years following the move.
Between 2005 and 2012 she coordinated the Perinatal Mental Health Special Interest Group in Melbourne. In 2010-11 she became Secretary of the Australasian Marcé Society, an international forum devoted to addressing perinatal mental illness. She has also published literature to support and educate her peers and the community.
Dr Megan Galbally, current director of perinatal mental health at Mercy Hospital for Women, is unequivocal about Dr Szego’s contribution. “On top of her achievements, many people now leading this field in Australia have worked in the Werribee unit under Klara’s leadership,” says Dr Galbally. “So she has had a huge influence on practice and research.”
Dr Szego feels the learning has been reciprocal. “Over the years I’ve worked with a number of psychiatrists and trainees who have all been fantastic. And I’m still learning from the women themselves.
It’s incredibly rewarding to work at a time of life where you can make a difference.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Dr Szego and colleagues’ more recent work in revealing how a mother’s perinatal mental illness can affect her child.
“We now recognise if the babies are inadequately cared for by mothers who are very unwell it has a significant impact on them,”
Dr Szego notes. “So gradually we have become more skilled in supporting the relationship between mothers and babies.
“But there’s still not enough support for young, high-needs families in the community. I’d like to see much more in-home support and education for parents, so the work started in the unit can continue for as long as needed.
“We also need to pick up signs before people become depressed or if they’re depressed in pregnancy. It’s an area in which our mother and baby unit could be a driver.”
Clearly, Dr Szego’s work will never stop while women and babies continue to need her knowledge, dedication and compassion.