2 – 8 May 2022 marks the sixth Maternal Mental Health Week in the UK. Welcoming a child into the world is an emotional time but in Scotland, for nearly 19,000 expectant mothers a year, pregnancy and birth can bring the added challenge of mental illness.
What is maternal mental illness?
A maternal or perinatal mental illness is mental illness while pregnant or after having a baby. The Maternal Mental Health Alliance says “Around 1 in 5 women experience a perinatal mental health problem during pregnancy or within the early postnatal years.” Shockingly, the organisation states that suicide is the leading cause of “direct maternal death” within one year of having a baby.
Unsurprisingly, the COVID 19 pandemic exacerbated the situation, as many mothers faced the prospect of giving birth – a physically punishing and often traumatic experience – alone due to strict pandemic restrictions.
The ‘Perinatal and infant mental health: equalities impact assessment’ published by the Scottish Government in 2021 showed that 11,000 women are in need of counselling for perinatal mental health, 5,500 require “more specialist help” and a further 2,250 have what they describe as “the most severe illness” with some in this last category possibly requiring inpatient care.
Types of maternal mental illness include:
- Ante- and/or postnatal depression
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Postpartum psychosis
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
In recent years there has been great progress in reducing the stigma around mental health and mental illness – most of us will have seen plenty of “It’s OK not to be OK” posts on our social media feeds.
Despite this, a degree of stigma remains about maternal mental health. Although social media is increasingly a place of acceptance and positivity, most of what we see on these apps is people sharing the high points of life, so it’s easy to feel alone if you are experiencing a crisis.
With this in mind, the theme of this year’s Maternal Mental Health Week – led by the Perinatal Mental Health Partnership – is ‘The Power of Connection’.
Help and support
The Mental Health (Scotland) Act (2015) gives mothers the right to be admitted to a specialist mother and baby unit, jointly with their baby, if in need of inpatient mental health care.
In its impact assessment, the Scottish Government pledged £50 million over a period of four years to provide better support for maternal mental health. The funding includes support for the community and third sector, specialist care for acute mental health problems, and improved infant mental health services.
It is standard practice for pregnant women to be asked about their feelings and mental health during antenatal and postnatal appointments. Help for those who need it at any stage before or after having a child can include support from specialist midwives, mental health nurses, perinatal psychiatrists, and health visitors.
If you need help, contact your GP, phone NHS 24 on 111, or reach out to your midwife or health visitor.
Local resources for help, support and information
NHS Inform published the Women and Families Maternal Mental Health Pledge in 2020, which sets out what to expect from the NHS in Scotland. They also have loads of info on your mental health and wellbeing in pregnancy.
Maternal Mental Health Scotland has lots of practical information and support, including audio from women and healthcare professionals sharing their knowledge and experiences.
There is a Scottish branch of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, whose key campaign is to “Make it everybody’s business”, aiming to ensure everyone can access essential, high-quality perinatal mental health care, and to improve access to specialist perinatal mental healthcare.