It shouldn’t come as a surprise that mums who experience mental health difficulties during pregnancy and early parenthood need specialist care. The impact of pregnancy and childbirth on a woman’s body and mind is huge - life-changing, in fact. Caring for a new baby is so challenging at the best of times and mums who are having a rough ride often need support to bond with their babies and to stay safe and well.
Specialist help isn’t always available, though. Last year the Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA) and the Royal College of Psychiatrists reported that 26% of NHS areas had no perinatal mental health services at all. The Everyone’s Business campaign lobbies for these services and has made significant progress, but provision remains patchy. Even where services are available, they only have capacity for the most severe cases. Families are falling through the net.
I should know. In 2014, I became acutely unwell with PTSD after my son’s difficult birth. There was no perinatal mental health provision locally and, as a result, the situation escalated until, desperate and suicidal, I was admitted to a psychiatric mother and baby unit out of area. (You can read about that here, if you like.) Five years on, I find it intensely moving – and sometimes bittersweet – when I encounter services which provide new mums with the care I should have had.
MumsAid is a charity based in Greenwich, London, and offers free counselling to women who are struggling in pregnancy or after having a baby. Earlier this year, the McPin Foundation and MumsAid invited me to interview some mums who had accessed counselling as part of McPin's evaluation of the MumsAid service. In some ways, it was an odd experience, phoning women I’d never met to talk about their mental health. I was grateful and a little awed that they were so willing not just to give up their time, but to share such intensely personal information with me.
The fact that I’d been through similar difficulties radically altered the tone of our conversation. I could see why McPin prefer to have interviews conducted by ‘peers’ – people who have relevant life experience in common with the people they’re interviewing. My experiences informed the work, and I felt that mums were more able to open up to me because I’d been there.
There was a lot of laughter and some tears too. I had half an eye on my list of questions, but they seemed wholly inadequate as these women shared with me some of what they had been through, and their determination to care for their children amidst the most trying circumstances. Sometimes I could hear the babies and toddlers in the background. The same themes came up again and again, so recognisable from my own experience: the impact of a traumatic birth, feeding difficulties, sleep deprivation, loss of identity, the struggle to parent while your mental health is in the toilet.
In all cases, the women’s experiences of MumsAid had been positive. Being able to talk to someone, free from judgement, who understood what they were going through enabled them to begin to work through the difficulties they were having. As one woman said: “Talking to [the counsellor] was cathartic and an incredible opportunity to talk openly… and see I was ‘normal’ for feeling this way…. It was a real lifeline and I wish it would be offered to more mums as the demand is great.”
Some mums had been referred to a generic NHS talking therapies service before they found MumsAid. No one stuck it out for more than one or two sessions: they couldn’t get childcare, the counsellor didn’t understand birth trauma or only made suggestions which were impossible to implement while looking after a baby. Staff simply weren’t trained to understand, address or accommodate issues that are specific to perinatal mental health.
Over and over, these women told me how ‘lucky’ they felt to be living where they did so that MumsAid was available to them. They knew about the postcode lottery and expressed concern for other mums elsewhere who wouldn’t have specialist help. For these women, participating in the interviews was a way of helping MumsAid reach more mums.
It was amazing to hear about the personalised, thoughtful, compassionate support that every woman I contacted had received from MumsAid, and about the difference it had made to them and their families. I can only echo their unanimous and unreserved praise for the work that MumsAid do, and the hope that they will go from strength to strength so that more families will benefit in future. The impact of a family-centred approach really cannot be overstated, and I invite you to read the report.
Pre-order Laura’s book on maternal mental health here, and follow her on Twitter @cooksferryqueen.
You might also be interested in a project to identify what factors contribute to good peer support for new mums that Laura and McPin were involved in.