The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is calling on GPs to assess the mental health of all pregnant and postnatal women, as some symptoms of mental illness - changes to appetite or sleeping patterns - can be masked by what is considered “normal” for individuals.
“GPs play a vital role in helping vulnerable people to get the correct diagnosis and the support they need,” said Dr Andrew Black, GP at Mortimer medical practice and deputy chair of the NICE indicator advisory committee.
Dr Black added: “These indicators, put forward by NICE, could help GPs to identify and support their patients who are most at risk.
“This can only be a good thing.”
NICE stated one in eight women experience anxiety or depression while pregnant, and up to one in five do so during the first year after childbirth.
The institute seeks to support GPs and clinical commissioning group (CCGs) by identifying areas of care to focus on to improve local and national health.
Their guidance reiterates that women should be asked about their mental state at their first midwife appointment, such as how often in the past month they have been bothered by feeling down, depressed or hopeless.
Commenting on the recommendations, Janet Fyle, professional policy advisor at The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) said: “The RCM believes that midwives, GPs and other healthcare professionals should always place equal importance on a women’s mental and physical health, not only after birth, but throughout the entire pregnancy.
“We know that suicide is a leading cause of death in new mothers in the UK and up to 20% of women are affected by mental health problems at some point in pregnancy or the postnatal period – within the first year after birth.”
Fyle said midwives play a central role in promoting the emotional wellbeing of women and their babies and in ensuring that all women with mental health concerns get appropriate and timely care.
“This is why it’s vital that GPs and midwives work closely together so warning signs and symptoms are not missed,” she added.
“Unfortunately the provision of these services is currently patchy at best and this is simply not good enough.”
Elizabeth Duff, senior policy adviser, at the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) said: “It’s good news for parents that NICE is calling on GPs to be more aware of new mothers’ mental health.
“Our research found that nearly a third (29%) of new mums said their GP did not ask them about any emotional or mental health issues during their six week postnatal check-up.
“No new mum should fall through the net at such a crucial time. Getting help early can make all the difference and allow women and their partners to access the support they need.”