Having a baby is one of the biggest life-changing events a woman can go through. With the physical and emotional impact of pregnancy and birth, along with the prospect of bringing new life into the world and all the responsibility that involves, it is natural for her to feel a whole torrent of different thoughts and emotions. Natural though it is, it is also vitally important that her feelings are not simply brushed aside as ‘just hormones’ or ‘just baby blues’. Left untreated, these feelings can quickly manifest themselves into serious mental health issues that can have long-lasting consequences for the woman, her child and her family.
It is estimated that around 1 in 5 women in the UK experience some sort of mental health issue during pregnancy and up to the first year after birth. Amongst these, the most common are low mood, depression and anxiety, but some women can also experience more severe conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or post-partum psychosis. There is no single cause or particular predisposition to mental health problems during pregnancy or after childbirth. Worries about the birth, her health, the health of her baby, the impact on her relationship, how her life will change and how she will cope can all contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. A traumatic or premature birth can lead to PTSD, and psychosis, whilst rare, can affect any woman and usually appears shortly after birth.
This week (3rd – 9th May) is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, part of a wider month of activity around campaigning for better, more accessible mental health care for new and expectant mothers. A study by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists found that only 7% of women experiencing perinatal mental health problems were referred to specialist care, with 38% having to wait at least 4 weeks to be referred, and some waiting up to a year. Specialist mental health service provision for new and expectant mothers has been criticised for being woefully inadequate, with large disparities between different areas of the country. This has been acknowledged by the government and the NHS, who are expanding services and introducing new dedicated hubs in each region as part of the service’s long-term plan.
The improvements to maternal mental health care are a welcome development, but there are still women suffering needlessly in silence. It is so important that new mothers’ voices are heard and that their health is prioritised just as much as their child’s. A healthy and happy mum will provide the best start in life for her child and develop a strong and loving bond that will last throughout their lifetime.
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