Thousands of women and their families in Northern Ireland who need treatment for mental health problems during pregnancy or following birth are at risk of receiving inadequate support.
Recent research by NSPCC Northern Ireland, the Royal College of Midwives and the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association has demonstrated significant gaps in the provision of vital services and care for women and their families affected by perinatal mental health illnesses.
The study found that increased strain is being put on midwives and health visitors across Northern Ireland to fill.
The NSPCC has launched a new campaign, Fight for a Fair Start, which calls for improved perinatal mental health provision and to ensure babies and families have the best start. It has highlighted that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK which currently has no commitment to invest in this vital issue.
The charity has also warned of the impact of the lack of specialist services including a mother and baby unit for new mothers who experience more serious perinatal mental health conditions. It means that women who need specialist inpatient care are admitted for treatment in a general psychiatric ward, separated from their baby during this period.
In March, the Scottish government announced a £50 million investment to improve services, and England and Wales have also made significant investments in this area. However, in Northern Ireland there continues to be no commitment to funding these vital services.
Perinatal mental health problems are one of the most common complications that a woman can experience when having a baby with up to one in five women affected during pregnancy and in the year after birth.
In Northern Ireland, means that up to 4,600 live births could be affected within a year. If untreated perinatal mental illnesses can have a devastating impact on women, babies and families. Problems include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic distress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders and postpartum psychosis.
Perinatal mental health problems can also make it harder for parents to provide the care that babies need for healthy social, intellectual and emotional development.
Launching Fight for a Fair Start today (Friday, July 19) NSPCC Northern Ireland has called for:
- All women and their families to receive care from a health visitor and midwife who has received appropriate and up-to-date training to detect perinatal mental health needs.
- All areas of Northern Ireland to be covered by high-quality, specialist community perinatal mental health services and a mother and baby unit, so that where a woman lives doesn’t determine her access to support.
- Investment to be secured and spent on facilitating these changes, in order to transform perinatal mental health services in Northern Ireland.
Caroline Cunningham, Senior Policy Researcher at NSPCC Northern Ireland, said:
“New mums and dads in Northern Ireland are still not receiving the mental health support that they need to give their babies the best start in life. Investment for specialist perinatal mental health services is vital so families can access the right support in their local area.
The Department of Health must make a commitment to ensure that midwives and health visitors get the training and support they need and all women and their families affected by the most serious problems can access potentially lifesaving treatment in the form of specialist services, and support from a mother and baby unit if they need it.”
One Northern Irish mum (who is anonymous) had been living in Scotland but returned to Northern Ireland to give birth to her first child. She said she failed to receive the mental health support she needed around the pregnancy and birth.
She said: “I felt what should have been a joyful occasion was tarnished and it was all my fault. I left the hospital feeling such shame, embarrassment and worry. My fears of my baby being taken away turned into believing that my baby was going to die.
“I was breaking down and I knew I needed help to cope but I was horrified to discover the mental health services I needed weren’t available in Northern Ireland, although I knew I could have received support if I had remained in Scotland. I had to fight so hard to get anyone to listen to me.
“One person who was my beacon and came to my rescue was my health visitor. She filled me with much needed reassurance. She put me in touch with a community women’s centre, who helped me and I eventually started to gain some relief.”
The campaign has been supported by Jo Malone London who also fund direct services to new and prospective parents, focussing on supporting parents with their mental health problems to help them develop secure and healthy relationships with their children.
The NSPCC is inviting people to join the campaign by raising their voices and contacting the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland at https://e-activist.com/page/43752/action/1