16,000 mothers missed out on ‘vital’ maternal mental health support during the pandemic

Royal College of Psychiatrists says a ‘postcode lottery’ in England puts mental health of expectant and new mums at risk with many areas not treating all women who need help.

05/07/21

16,000 mothers missed out on ‘vital’ maternal mental health support during the pandemic

Thousands of women could not get vital help with their mental health during pregnancy or right after giving birth because of the covid pandemic, according to new analysis.

Last year, 47,000 people were expected to access perinatal mental health services, but in the most recent data for the 2020 calendar year only 31,261 managed to get help with problems such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts in pregnancy and early motherhood.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists says lack of support for mental health problems during and after pregnancy can have serious consequences for parents, children, and their families.

However, they warned that the pandemic was not the sole reason the mental health of thousands of women was overlooked. Variation in care across the country due to lack of local investment in perinatal mental health services means that in many areas in England many pregnant women and new mums are not able to access mental health support.

Dr Trudi Seneviratne, Registrar of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and a perinatal mental health professional, said the need for funding was “urgent”.

“Many women can develop mental health problems for the first-time during pregnancy and after birth, or are at risk of pre-existing illnesses made worse if they don’t get the right support in time.

“Staff in perinatal mental healthcare have made every effort to support women in these extremely challenging times but services have been under unprecedented strain. Funding for mental health facilities is long overdue but is more urgent in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mental health professionals are now calling on local health bosses in certain areas to address longstanding funding issues and put an end to the postcode lottery in maternal mental health. Perinatal mental health support was broadly on track before the pandemic, with 30,625 women accessing perinatal mental health services in 2019/20, against the expectation of 32,000 outlined in the NHS Long Term Plan.

However, disruptions to care combined with the stresses of the pandemic exacerbated poor mental health in expectant and new mothers and made it harder to get diagnosis and treatment.

In all local areas in England at least 7.1% of pregnant women and new mums are expected to need support by mental health services. North Central London is the worst performing area in the country with just 150 out of 1,521 pregnant women or new mothers expected to access specialist support managing to get it. By contrast, in West London, 250 women accessed support even during the pandemic, exceeding the expectation of 181 set by the NHS for that area.

“Gaps in local funding in certain areas in England should be urgently addressed so that the same standard of care is available to all women, no matter where they live,” Dr Seneviratne said.

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