Supporting perinatal mental health: from peer-support to specialist services

There is a societal expectation that pregnancy and the arrival of a new baby are happy and exciting times.  However, it may come as a surprise to learn that up to 1 in 5 women develop a mental illness during pregnancy or within the first year after having a baby (also known as the ‘perinatal period’).

Up to 1 in 10 women may develop postnatal depression, however, there are actually a number of other mental illnesses that can affect women during pregnancy or following birth.  These include:

  • Antenatal depression
  • Perinatal anxiety
  • Perinatal obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Post-partum psychosis

These illnesses can range from mild to severe.  Left untreated, perinatal mental illnesses can have a devastating effect on mental and physical health.  In fact, suicide is the leading cause of death for mothers during the first year after pregnancy.

The wider impact on children and families

Perinatal mental illnesses can also impact upon children, partners and significant others.  Research shows links to depression in partners, higher rates of divorces, lower levels of emotional and cognitive development and higher levels of behavioural problems and psychological disorders among children.

As well as the high human cost, there are also a number of economic costs associated with failing to address perinatal mental health needs. Research commissioned by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance found that perinatal depression, anxiety and psychosis carry a total long-term cost to society of about £8.1 billion for each one-year cohort of births in the UK.

In comparison, it would cost only an extra £280 million a year to bring the whole pathway of perinatal mental health care up to the level and standards recommended in national guidance.

Access to specialist services is a ‘postcode lottery’

The good news is that most mothers who experience mental ill health can and do make a full recovery.

At present, mild to moderate cases of mental ill health in pregnancy and following birth are treated by the GP through anti-depressants, talking therapies and/or support from a community mental health team.  For more complex or serious illnesses, GPs can make a referral to specialist perinatal mental health services for expert advice and support.  This may involve staying in a specialist psychiatric Mother and Baby Unit (MBU) – where mothers and their baby can be admitted together.

However, despite the high prevalence of, and risks associated with, perinatal mental illness, access to specialist perinatal mental health services across the UK is a postcode lottery.

Maps by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance show that women in around half of the UK have no access to specialist perinatal mental health services.  There are currently no MBUs in Wales or Northern Ireland, meaning mothers with more serious or complex mental illnesses often face either being admitted to a MBU far from home, or being admitted to a general psychiatric ward without their babies, in order to receive treatment.

For those with mild to moderate mental illness, waiting times for NHS talking treatments can be many months.  Lack of awareness means that many cases of mild to moderate mental ill health go undiagnosed and untreated.  There is an urgent need for both greater awareness of mental illness and better access to mental health services across the country.

The role of peer-support

In recognition of and response to the need for better access to mental health support for pregnant and new mothers, a number of local ‘grassroots’ peer-support projects have been established by dedicated volunteers and campaigners.

One such project is Blank Canvas.  Blank Canvas is a creative journaling workshop in Lanarkshire, aimed at women during pregnancy or in the first two years since birth, who are experiencing mental health difficulties.

The project was set up earlier this year by midwife Elaine Connell, together with some of her midwife colleagues, who shared her dedication to improving mental health support for women in the perinatal period.

Elaine was keen to start her own peer support group following her own personal and professional experiences of perinatal mental ill health, and was inspired by the success of other projects focusing on art and creativity, such as Maternal Journal.

As Elaine explains:

It is free… …to access, and each attendee is given their own art kit to keep. We have a different theme each week and have guest speakers coming to do sessions also. During the group they can explore new art materials and create reflections in their journal, whilst chatting over some tea and cake. Each session they will take home a prompt card which can inspire their journalling during the week until the group meets next.”

Blank Canvas is free to access and works on a self-referral basis, with advertising mainly through Facebook.  A local shop and community space (Swaddle in Hamilton) donated a venue space, and all other costs (including materials) have been raised by volunteers committed to the project, through fundraisers such as coffee mornings and participation in the Kiltwalk.

Elaine has conducted an evaluation of the first 10-week block and feedback from participants has been extremely positive.  Word about the project has spread and the next block of Blank Canvas – which started on the 18th September – is fully subscribed (with a waiting list).  As Elaine notes, this is fantastic for the project, but highlights the high level of demand that exists for mental health support among new mothers.

The long term plan is to run 6-week blocks frequently throughout the year, moving to separate antenatal and postnatal sessions in 2020.  Elaine also hopes to start up a creative journaling group aimed at fathers too – noting that father’s mental health is often overlooked.

One of the key things Elaine has learned from the creation of Blank Canvas is that there is a lack of support available for people who want to establish their own peer-support groups:

What has been clear when forming the group, is that there is very little support to establish peer support. There are lots of people who want to help others but who won’t because they don’t know where to begin, or how to access funding, or lack of training opportunities.”

Grassroots peer-support groups are an important source of support for mothers in the perinatal period, particularly in cases of mild to moderate mental ill health, where NHS capacity is strained.

Attending peer-support groups such as Blank Canvas may also have a preventative effect for mums who attend during pregnancy. Statistically, women who experience antenatal anxiety are more likely to develop postnatal depression, and so early intervention could help to reduce that risk.

Urgent need for better access to specialist services

While these projects have been successful, they are aimed predominantly at women experiencing mild to moderate mental ill health.

For those experiencing more complex or serious mental ill health, there remains an urgent need for better access to specialist treatment and support.  The Maternal Mental Health Alliance ‘Everyone’s Business’ campaign calls for all women throughout the UK who experience perinatal mental ill health to receive the care that they and their families need.  Specifically, it demands that:

  • perinatal mental health care should be clearly set at a national level and complied with
  • specialist perinatal mental health teams meeting national quality standards should be available for women in every area of the UK
  • training in perinatal mental health care should be delivered to all professionals involved in the care of women during pregnancy and the first year after birth

Promising signs of progress

There have been some promising signs of progress.  NHS England recently announced their plans to rollout specialist perinatal community services across the whole of England, including the opening of four new Mother and Baby Units.

And in Scotland, the Scottish Government recently announced the rollout of an initial £1 million for perinatal mental health services, as part of a wider £50 million investment in mental health services.  This initial investment will support a range of areas, including supporting the third sector to provide counselling, befriending and peer support for women and their families.  It will also help provide more consistent access to psychological assessment and treatment, by increasing staffing levels and training at Mother and Baby Units, for women with the most serious illnesses.

The Scottish Government also established a Perinatal and Infant Mental Health Programme Board earlier this year.  The PIMH Programme Board aims to help implement the commitments to improving perinatal and infant mental health set out in the 2018/19 Programme for Government and Better Mental Health in Scotland.

Clare Thomson, Everyone’s Business Co-ordinator for Scotland, says “It’s fantastic to see the evidence-based approach to developing community perinatal mental health services and look forward to hearing about the first steps – particularly in the North of Scotland“.

Perinatal mental health is Everyone’s Business

However, there is still much to do, including ensuring that this funding translates into services on the ground.  Wales and Northern Ireland are still without MBUs and there is a pressing need to raise awareness of and address mental illness among fathers.

The cost to the public sector of perinatal mental health problems is 5 times the cost of improving services.  It clearly makes sense to invest in improving this care – not only from an economic perspective, but to help improve the lives of women, their children and families across the country. And while more funding is essential to achieve this, raising awareness of the importance of perinatal mental health really is ‘everyone’s business’.


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