Bringing awareness to maternal mental health

The NHS in England delivers over 1,600 babies every day and for the majority of these families, their experience of pregnancy, birth and postnatal care is a positive one. Expectant and new mothers have described the journey from pregnancy to after birth as a complex and unique event like no other – often one of immense joy, excitement, and happiness. Yet, it can also make people feel vulnerable and, at times, overwhelmed.

It is estimated that up to one in four new and expectant mums are affected by perinatal mental health problems, covering a range of conditions including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and postpartum psychosis. If left untreated, these mental health issues can have significant and long-lasting effects on women, children, and the wider family.

The right support at the right time can have an enormous impact on the psychological wellbeing and mental health of women, but we know that stigma often prevents people from speaking up and seeking help, and many women tell us they fear that clinicians may be judgemental. There are many barriers to accessing care and we are working hard to reduce them.

The theme for this year’s UK Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘the power of connection”. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the importance of the connections we develop with our communities. This is especially true for new and expectant mothers. If, for instance, you are feeling anxious, or sad all the time, and it is starting to affect your life, it is so important for you to be able to talk about how you are feeling and adapting to pregnancy and motherhood – with family, friends or clinicians.

It is perfectly normal to have some worries during pregnancy, but if the things you are trying yourself are not working, I would encourage you to speak to your midwife or doctor. In this particularly vulnerable time, they will offer you more support and can refer you to psychological services, or to specialist perinatal mental health services.

When you share a mental health issue to your GP or midwife, you may be referred for free talking therapy – known as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT). Please note that these services also accept self-referrals.  If you require further support, you may be referred to specialist perinatal mental health services.

Over the past five years, huge progress has been made to improve and expand services offering specialist treatments to women experiencing moderate to severe or complex mental health problems. You can now access care and support in the community via the specialist community perinatal mental health teams, available in every area of the country. These services are in place to support you and your family at this vulnerable time and ensure that you get a good recovery whilst remaining first and foremost a mother.

The support available is increasing all the time.  33 Maternal Mental Health Services are currently being set up to offer evidence-based psychological interventions to women who experience moderate to severe or complex mental health issues directly related to a trauma or loss of a child. These new services should be available across England by March 24.  The NHS Long Term Plan aims to ensure that, by March 24, at least 66,000 women will access specialist perinatal mental health care annually.

If you are feeling worried about your mental health, talk to your GP, midwife, nurse, or health visitor, and if you feel able, talk to your family and friends about what you are feeling too. In the postnatal period, your GP should offer you a check-up, focused on your mental and physical health, not just that of the baby. Whatever you are worried about, don’t bottle it up – your mental health is important and there is help available if you need it.

Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent

Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent has vast experience in healthcare provision and is the first Chief Midwifery Officer in England.

She has worked as a midwife and a nurse and held senior positions in clinical practice, education, leadership and management including: Director of Midwifery and Nursing positions for Women’s and Children’s services at Imperial College Healthcare Trust & Guy’s & St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust.

Academic roles have included: Senior Lecturer, Curriculum Leader, LME and Professor of Midwifery.

Jacqueline was appointed Chief Midwifery Officer in Spring 2019 at NHS England and NHS Improvement and is National Maternity Safety Champion for the Department of Health. She is also visiting Professor of Midwifery at Kings College London and London South Bank University.

Her experience has seen her leading and influencing national maternity standards and guidance. She also influences healthcare, nationally and internationally through research, education and publications and is frequently invited to speak at national and international conferences. She is a member of the British Journal of Midwifery editorial board and until recently was an active member of the Maternity and Newborn Forum at the Royal Society of Medicine.

She has joined the Tommy’s Charity National Advisory Board as Midwifery advisor, and the Women of the Year management committee. Her voluntary work currently includes Midwifery Advisor for the Wellbeing Foundation Africa and until recently a trustee.

In 2014 she received the HSJ, BME Pioneers award and in 2015 she was selected from over 100 nominations for inclusion on Nursing Times’ Leaders 2015 list that celebrates nurses and midwives who are pioneers, entrepreneurs and inspirational role models in their profession.