Independent health and social care champion Healthwatch Shropshire is calling on local services to make more space for new parents in Shropshire to talk about their mental health.
A new national report, Mental Health and the Journey to Parenthood, exploring the experiences of women with mental health problems has found that many people are not experiencing the consistent support they should expect if services were following NHS guidelines.
The findings reflect what local women told Healthwatch Shropshire when it investigated the issue last January, and produced the Maternity and Mental Health Engagement Report Shropshire.
The Healthwatch England report focuses on a survey of 1,738 women and draws on the research undertaken by Healthwatch Shropshire. 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.
Some mothers reported good experiences of care. A mum reported that she had quick access to support: “I was near the end of the pregnancy when I had a panic and a wobble so I saw the midwife and had a second consultant appointment. This happened within one week.”
However, 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 such as severe pregnancy sickness, the physical health of babies, a history of mental health problems, feelings of isolation and a lack of empathy from professionals. Many women feel scared about speaking up: even though they 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.
It is clear that many people don’t know where to turn for help. Despite the increased focus on NHS support for mental health, women said that they were not being given enough information about the mental health support available and what to do if they need help.
Sharing her experience, a mother said; “Both myself and my husband felt that we needed support following the birth of our child and spoke to our health visitor about this who advised we made a GP appointment. Three months following this we are still trying to get an appointment – even when I mentioned this to my GP at my 6 weeks appointment. No support!”
In the report, 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’. 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 Lynn Cawley, Chief Officer of Healthwatch Shropshire, said:
“Women and their partners experiencing maternity mental health issues for the first time appear to have considerable difficulty accessing help and support. A system wide understanding of the referral criteria for each part of the service is needed, e.g. Perinatal Mental Health Team, Psychological Therapies. This will save professionals time and reduce distress for parents. The mothers’ and partners’ long-standing relationships with Primary Care, where they exist, could be vital in helping some of them to engage with the mental health support on offer.”
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.”