For any family, emotional wellbeing matters. When it comes to mental health the perinatal period can be a challenging time. Adjusting to life with a new baby is hard, but for some families the transition to parenthood is complicated by a traumatic birth, depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD or psychosis. The impact on families can be devastating, especially if they are unable to access support. Coping day to day becomes hard, relationships can become strained and caring for their new baby overwhelming. For some families so serious is the issue that it can mean not being able functioning at all, resulting in the need to stay in mental health facility, sometimes meaning mum and baby are separated. Sadly for some families the consequences are the loss of a loved one to the ravages of perinatal mental health. The figures are staggering.
Yet families are often left without the support they need. Because birth trauma and perinatal mental health issues are diverse, complex and difficult to diagnosis, families can find accessing help or treatment difficult. Often it is a ‘postcode lottery’ as to whether families get the right help. Some areas have excellent services to support families, but in other areas there are big gaps, with families not able to access the help they need. By failing to prevent, diagnosis, treat and support birth trauma and perinatal mental health issues, we are jeopardising the wellbeing of families now and in the future.
It is also the cost to society, both finically but also the human cost, because it affects a whole family, including extended family such as grandparents. It can put pressure on families that mean they struggle to cope. For many years investment in services has been lacking. Many maternity units do not have services in place to support families after a difficult birth. Nationally 50 % of mental health trusts do not have a specialist perinatal mental health service. There is currently a shortage of 50 mother and baby units nationally that are needed to provide a safe place for mothers to be cared for with their babies while they relieve the treatment they need.
As well as services, often those in place to care for families are not given the training they need to support birth trauma or perinatal mental health. In fact 41% of women report that they were never asked about their mental health by their midwife or Health visitor. GP’s too are often left without adequate training to support birth trauma and perinatal mental health, or without services to refer women to. This leaves families vulnerable and counting the cost emotionally. Early diagnosis, management and treatment for birth trauma and perinatal mental helps prevent women reaching the point where they are at breaking point or need inpatient care. For women with previous mental health issues, support during pregnancy enables them to be in control and prevent it escalating after birth, thus reducing the risk of birth trauma too.
The Human cost
For families left struggling with the effects after a traumatic birth or perinatal mental health issues it can be life changing as it seeps into every aspect of life. Women who have a previous difficult birth experience or a perinatal mental health illness in pregnancy are more likely to deliver early or have low birth weight babies. After giving birth, if her birth was traumatic the impact on perinatal mental health can affect a mother’s ability to care for her baby, how she parents her baby and her relationship with her baby. Bonding and attachment can sometimes be affected. For the woman herself she can become lost, feel isolated, scared to reach out and tell anyone what she is feeling. Sadly for 1 in 7 families affected by perinatal mental health the end result is a women lost to suicide, how much of this is affected by a birth experience we don not know.
We can make a difference. By working together, by listening to the experiences of those affected by birth trauma or perinatal mental health and by campaigning for awareness, training, and specialist services we can help families get the support and treatment they need.
For more information see Prevention in mind, All Babies Count: Spotlight on Perinatal Mental Health