- New national research echoes the experiences of local women who are not experiencing the support they should expect if they have mental health problems when pregnant or after having a baby.
- Women feel mental ill health is often triggered by a combination of issues, such as severe sickness in pregnancy, traumatic births, physical illness and a history of mental health problems.
- A fear of speaking up, a lack of opportunities to discuss mental health with professionals, not knowing where to turn for help and limited access to support all adding to women’s struggles.
- Healthwatch calls on health professionals to make more space to talk about mental health and check on the wellbeing of women during and after pregnancy.
A new report exploring the experiences of women with mental health problems during the journey to parenthood has found that many people are not experiencing the consistent support they should expect if services were following NHS guidelines.
The findings reflect what women in Sutton told us after we investigated the issue this year.
Published today by Healthwatch England, the report - ‘Mental health and the journey to parenthood’ - focuses on a survey of 1,738 women and draws on the research undertaken by Healthwatch Sutton. These women reported either having a mental health condition diagnosed by a doctor before, during or after having a baby or they said they had experienced a mental health problem which had not been diagnosed.
With the NHS committed to providing maternal mental health support for more than 30,000 extra women by 2020/21, the work undertaken by Healthwatch can help local services understand what’s working for new mothers and what isn’t.
The national report echoes what people told Healthwatch Sutton, with many women reporting good experiences of care.
One respondent praised the helpful support she received from a range of services in Sutton:
‘GP gave me access to other services, midwives explained the medical challenges I was facing, health visitors provided ongoing support [and] children’s centres ran services to improve wellbeing’.
Variable mental support for new parents
However, the national and local research also indicates that many women are not experiencing support that meets national NICE guidelines which set out what mothers should expect when it comes to the recognition, assessment and treatment of mental health problems during and after pregnancy.
When asked about the support they had received, parents in Sutton said:
‘I found there to be a disconnect between GPs and health visitors. If I was suffering from postnatal depression and struggling to care for my baby, I think I would have fallen through the cracks. I had to be persistent to get advice from a health visitor and the GP did not have time/the right expertise to discuss my baby’s sleep issues.’
Action needed to tackle fear and promote mental wellbeing
With one in four women experiencing mental health problems in pregnancy and the 24 months after birth, analysis of the stories women shared also highlights the need to provide more opportunities for new parents and health professionals to talk about mental health during the journey to parenthood.
Common themes highlighted by the experiences of women include:
- The range of issues that can help contribute to mental health problems: Severe pregnancy sickness, the physical health of babies, a history of mental health problems, feelings of isolation and a lack of empathy from professionals can all play their part.
- People don’t know where to turn for help: Despite the increased focus on NHS support for mental health, women told us about not being given enough information about the mental health support available and what to do if they need help.
- Women feel scared about speaking up: Even though women know they are struggling with their mental health, factors such as fear that they will be judged as bad parents or healthcare staff attitudes can act as a barrier to seeking support.
Sharing her experience Kristy said:
“I fell into this feeling of failure. I’ve failed to breastfeed. I’ve failed to have a girl. I’ve failed to create the perfect family. I didn’t recognise I was ill, I just thought I had failed, that the boys deserved a better mother, and I thought everything would be better once I was physically well. I was so ashamed to talk about how I was feeling, because we’re told how lucky we are to have a baby.”
“There needs to be more support for women who are pregnant and aren’t well. I started feeling so miserable when I was pregnant because I couldn’t enjoy it and no one understood. I didn’t know what obstetric cholestasis was until I got it and if I’d been able to reach out and get some support, it might have made it easier.”
Other national findings
When asked about the support they had received:
- A third of women (33%) who had a diagnosed mental health condition said they were not given any advice about maternity and mental health at any point.
- Nearly half (47%) of all women described getting support for their mental health as ‘difficult’ or ‘very difficult’.
- More than half of all women (58%) said they did not get a care plan that considered their maternity and mental health needs, while 36% reported not feeling involved in decisions about their care.
- A third of all women (36%) rated the quality of mental health support given by health professionals (e.g. GPs, midwives and health visitors) as poor or very poor.
Commenting on the findings, Healthwatch Sutton Chair, David Williams said:
‘We have uncovered findings that are vital for the wellbeing of parents in Sutton. We must continue to gain a better understanding of their responses to inform the most effective way forward’.
Imelda Redmond CBE, National Director of Healthwatch England said:
“It’s good to see that the NHS is investing in better mental health support for new mothers. While our research does highlight the positive impact that the right support can have, it also shows how much more needs to be done to make sure that all women get the right help, at the right time.
“People meet with a whole host of professionals before and after having a baby, and space must be made for them to talk about how they’re feeling. Parents must feel empowered to speak up and understand where to go for support so that they can manage any mental health problems they face, form strong bonds with baby and help lay the foundations for a healthy, happy life for all involved.”