Steep rise in waiting times for perinatal mental health care

Freedom of information data shows that, in a seven-month period, the numbers of women on a waiting list for mental health treatment rose by 40%

4th September 2023 about a 3 minute read
“This is inevitably resulting in women not receiving the lifesaving care they need. To break this cycle, the funding for specialist maternal mental health care must reach the teams it is intended for.” Karen Middleton, head of policy, Maternal Mental Health Alliance

Pregnant women and new mothers are having to wait much longer for mental health support, according to a new analysis of NHS England data by the Labour Party.

More than 30,000 women are on waiting lists for perinatal mental health support, according to data provided in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. During the period from August 2022 to March 2023 the numbers of women waiting rose by 40%. Over that same period, the numbers who accessed support also rose, but only by 8%. One woman waited 319 days for her first appointment.

Rosena Allin-Khan, the shadow minister for mental health, said: “After over a decade of government neglect, mental health services are on their knees, and the government appears entirely unwilling to tackle the crisis – they have pulled their 10-year cross-government mental health plan and continue to delay the reform of the Mental Health Act. Patients are being failed.”

Since 2021, NHS England has been rolling out 26 new perinatal mental health hubs across the country, with a completion target of April 2024. A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said that by that date “at least 66,000 women with moderate to severe perinatal mental health difficulties will have access to specialist community care, up to 24 months after the birth of their babies. This expansion, along with the opening of four new mother and baby units in 2019, means that in every part of England the most seriously ill women can receive residential care without being separated from their babies.”

Better data needed to understand scale of problem

Despite the new hubs, women are struggling to access care. Karen Middleton, the head of policy at the Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA), said the group was “sadly unsurprised” at the rise in demand. The MMHA’s own research, said Middleton, “found that although budgets had largely increased, the pandemic has meant services are not as developed as they need to be, and the lack of funding security has impacted recruitment”.

She added: “This is inevitably resulting in women not receiving the lifesaving care they need. To break this cycle, the funding for specialist maternal mental health care must reach the teams it is intended for.”

There was also a need for better publicly available local data to help “fully understand the true scale of the postcode lottery new and expectant mothers face when attempting to access mental health care”, Middleton said.

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) has called for more specialist mental health midwives. Sally Ashton-May, the head of policy for the RCM, said a shortage of midwifery staff meant that existing mental health specialists were often used to fill gaps in standard care: “One of the key questions is: how do you divide up your workforce to deliver everything you need to do? And unfortunately, perinatal mental health is one of the ones that sometimes comes lower down the list, and shouldn’t.

“It is an incredibly important area, and it doesn’t have the parity of esteem. There is a lot of focus on the physical needs of women in pregnancy, and there is less resourcing around the mental health aspects of care.”

FCC Insight

Demand for mental health services in general has increased sharply since the pandemic, so it is not surprising to see that reflected in demand for  services dealing specifically with perinatal mental health. Covid-19 restrictions had a particularly negative effect on women’s mental health, partly because of a lack of support from health professionals after the birth, and partly because new mothers were isolated from their own support networks. NHS England’s efforts to provide more perinatal mental health services appear to have had little impact in meeting the increased demand, which may be down to difficulties in recruiting staff. Mental health problems affect up to 20% of new mothers, and suicide is the leading direct cause of death of women up to a year after birth. If the new, long-anticipated perinatal mental health services are to do their job effectively, government must ensure that they are properly staffed and funded.