Number of new mothers accessing mental health treatment rises dramatically

Although NHS England has introduced new specialist services to support mothers with mental health problems, demand has increased significantly

2nd May 2024 about a 4 minute read
“There’s huge demand for care and services. Even though services have expanded, they are stretched. And sometimes they struggle to meet demand.” Dr Livia Martucci, Royal College of Psychiatrists

The number of new and expectant mothers in England receiving specialist support for mental health problems has almost doubled in the last three years, according to new figures published by ITV News.

The NHS England data shows that more than 57,000 women received treatment in the last year, an increase of a third on the previous year.

ITV spoke to mothers at Ribblemere Mother and Baby Unit in Lancashire about their experience.  One of the mothers, Elinor Davies, told ITV News:  “You feel quite alone, it’s quite an isolating experience. It’s way more than depression and anxiety, it’s like the end of the world.”

The increase in pregnant women and new mothers receiving mental health support may be partly down to improved services, but also reflects the growing demand. Stef Maudsley, a perinatal consultant nurse, said that society puts pressure on mothers to be the “perfect mum” and to enjoy parenthood from the outset.

“For lots of people that’s just not the experience, it can be very difficult to adapt to being a parent and very lonely.”

Some women miss out on essential support

The Ribblemere Mother and Baby Unit opened six years ago. Before that, local women have had to travel miles or go to a general adult psychiatric ward. Some women still miss out on essential mental health support, with suicide the leading cause of death for women in the first year after birth.

ITV News also spoke to the family of Kath Brace, whose baby died shortly after birth. Kath did not receive the mental health support she needed and died by suicide seven months after her son’s death. Her sister-in-law, Rose James, said: “She just slipped through the net. There should be somewhere for bereaved families to seek help.”

The psychiatric hospital where Kath was being treated allowed her to leave unescorted, despite two previous suicide attempts.

“We’ve lost the heart of the family. Even 18 months on we fully expect her to walk through the door and she is never going to. It has just devastated our family completely,” Rose said. An inquest found failings at the hospital contributed to her death.

According to NHS England, there are now 40  Maternal Mental Health Services across England for women who need specialist support after perinatal loss. These have been rolled out in the last five years.

Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s national mental health director, said: “Our specialist teams across the country are highly trained and have many effective approaches to successful treatment, so if you are pregnant or have given birth in the last two years and are struggling with your mental health then please do not hesitate to ask your GP for support, the NHS is here to help.”

Services are stretched

One woman, Hazvi Chimutanda, told ITV News that she became mentally unwell during the pregnancy she experienced following a stillbirth. Fortunately, she received specialist support.  and her two-year-old daughter Matida. “I don’t think I’d be here if I hadn’t had the help,” Hazvi said.

Despite the increase in services, however, staff shortages and unstable funding mean that not all women receive the help they need.

“There’s huge demand for care and services,” Dr Livia Martucci from the Royal College of Psychiatrists told ITV News. “Even though services have expanded, they are stretched. And sometimes they struggle to meet demand.”

Health minister, Maria Caulfield, told ITV News that the government is “committed to ensuring these services are available to every new mother who needs them, no matter where they live in England.”

She added: “The government has also significantly increased spending on mental health to support these ambitions.”

FCC Insight

NHS England’s decision to roll out specialist maternal mental health services for new mothers who have experienced trauma and loss has been a significant and welcome step. New mothers in England now have access to specialist support that is not available in many other countries. Demand, however, is clearly increasing significantly, and suicide remains a leading cause of death for new mothers. Government must make sure that the new services receive the sustainable funding they need so that all new mothers with mental health problems can access the help they need.