Supporting Maternal Mental Health – is it big business?

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On Saturday in Bristol a room filled with people full of eager anticipation. This was it after many months of work it was the release of “Human Milk, Tailor-made for Tiny Humans’ the first breastfeeding advert.

Its been a long time coming and on the whole it has been received well with much praise for those who with no experience, and no funding, started this seemingly impossible project. However inevitably there were some who felt that it made mums that couldn’t breastfeed feel guilty and failures. Understandably so when all everyone wants to do is give their children the best. When we feel this isn’t the case, guilt over takes what we know to be true and can cloud even the most reasoning of minds.

Also this week I was asked to attend a Maternal Mental health event for health visitors to share my work around perinatal mental health and birth trauma. I arrived slightly late after a battle with traffic and was greeted with a menu thrust at me asking me what I wanted for my three course meal. Slightly perplexed I ran into the room ready with my leaflets and felt like I had been hit by a wall. All around the room were stands from formula companies. Formula that was organic, for reflux, that guaranteed to make your baby sleep for said amount of hours. Bounty was there too and also a sleep organization that promised to help you get your baby to sleep through the night.

I should have left, should have turned round and headed for the door. Of course it was my own fault as I should have checked who was sponsoring the event. I usually do, but honestly never did it cross my mind that an event for maternal mental health would be include formula sponsorship. I felt like a secret reporter as I listened to the conversations around me and the complete misinformation that was being given to health professionals including many students.

So I stood and gave out my leaflets and my important message about how a difficult birth can affect mental health in women and why support is needed, as those in attendance filed past me with their bounty bags and endless leaflets and free sample tins. I felt sick to my stomach and sad, oh so sad. Here I was at an event to address the battles of women and families for their mental health, a battle that right now many are facing that has cost implications to us as a society and more than that a massive person cost to those affected and what was on offer? What was being talked about? Formula. Of all the stands the only one offering support to families was the amazing SANDS charity, who support those who have experienced the loss of a baby.

A talk ensued pointing out all the statistics we know on perinatal mental health, also the moving experience of one woman’s battle with postpartum psychosis and bipolar disorder. From the floor came health visitors pleas and concerns about how are they to support families with maternal mental health when they are losing funding and staff being cut. My heart bleeds for those who desperately want to be the support families need they are being pillaged of resources till only the basics remain and you can see the anguish and frustration. So many said to me they had no where to send those affected, no services to protect these vulnerable families. I looked around the room, where were the charities, the third sector organisations that do provide the help and support that is needed?

Now I can hear you, oh here we go another post formula bashing, but instead it is a post about giving families the best support. Because at an event that was to talk about how we can support maternal mental health the only organisations giving out information was multi-million pound formula companies and why? Because they have the money. They have the money to push their products, to pay for venues and three course meals. This is not the information that healthcare professionals or families need when supporting maternal mental health.

Yes I can hear you again saying, but why does this matter? It matters because we are failing, yes failing families. We are failing them and those who care for them because we are not giving them the chance to make informed choices, we are failing them because the system is cutting the services that are needed, closing children’s centres, decommissioning services such as the family nurse partnership and reducing funding everywhere else that means less help to those that need it. We are failing them because what was needed at that event was information on what support is available locally and nationally for those who are suffering with perinatal mental health. How does information on organic formula or a bounty pack do that?

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When a video is then released that mentions breastfeeding we again hear the cries of women. Cries about lack of support, lack or information, lack of services and qualified help. Cries of women who desperately wanted a breastfeeding journey but didn’t. Who do they blame? Themselves.“I’ve failed”. NO, they didn’t fail, they have been failed by a system around them that just isn’t listening.  Studies show that a big indicator for postnatal depression is wanting to breastfeed and not being able to. Yes we may think that the answer is to tell women to be ‘kind to themselves‘ and it ‘doesn’t matter‘, but it does matter. We accept that we would never say this about birth, ‘oh well it doesn’t matter if you didn’t get the birth you wanted’.  All the time we question if women’s choices are being met and the need to make sure they are helped to have the birth they want. Yet somehow when it comes to infant feeding that all goes out the window. ‘Oh well it doesn’t matter’. If it doesn’t matter why are so many women saying it does?

I personally had so much pressure to give formula it was ridiculous. But it was my lifeline. It kept me alive mentally and if I had stopped feeding my baby the impact on me would have been so damaging. I know that for others the opposite will be the case and that is important, because what matters is that regardless of feeding, or birth or how we parent, families have the right to access the services and help they need. Yet sadly the support on offer is dwindling, this week I have a meeting to see if my team are being decommissioned. We are a small NHS infant feeding team that provides support antenatally, in hospital including neonatal and in community for up to a year. We support all feeding, and give evidence based information for families. I could go on and on about the women that we have helped, the feedback we have in abundance and the vital support we provide not just physically but emotionally, but honestly no one cares. We are viewed as just not important enough and easy to cut. Yet the impact on all those families, the strain on their emotional wellbeing doesn’t get considered. So it goes on and on, round and round a never ending circle of families being failed.

So while we are all talking about maternal and infant mental health, while we are all lamenting the costs to society, the costs the families and how this needs to change we all need to start listening. Listening to those who are given the task to support families, those who provide the services whether that be third sector or public sector and more importantly to the families themselves. They will tell us what is needed and how we can support them. While talking and awareness is great, what happens when there is no where to send families for help? When the health visitors are so diminished they struggle to provide any support? The answers won’t lie with multi-million pound companies who use families for profit.

I left the event as soon as I could and had a troubled nights sleep. Tomorrow I may no longer have a job, leaving families without the support they need to feed their babies. I fear for where we are heading and I hope that soon the system wakes up and sees what families really need, because the price of not doing so is just too high and women, babies and their families deserve so much more.

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