Parent Infant Partnership (PIP) is to launch Infant Mental Health week from 6th-10th June working closely with the 1001 Critical First Days campaign. On 27th June at the Houses of Parliament there will be an exhibition - Tomorrow's Child - that deals with the theme of maternal mental illness and the impact on the unborn foetus, which I am participating in.
Suicide is the primary indirect cause of death for mothers in the UK; if we do not protect the mental health of mothers the impact on their children is profound.
Safeguarding the mental health of our children needs to start in the womb. But our most vulnerable mothers, both in the UK and across the world, who are suffering with mental health issues, are often not getting the support they need. Being able to access care, such as a mother and baby specialist unit, remains a postcode lottery for mothers in the UK. In other countries there is a lack of knowledge about maternal mental health issues. Recently I gave two talks at the Malaysian Mental Health Association and was told that they advised women with mental health problems not to have children. This saddened me to hear. With the right support mothers with mental health issues can be good mothers and it is essential that we support them, because if we don't we are not only failing them but also their children.
The mental health of a child is precarious; a baby is totally dependent on adults for food, care, shelter, warmth, cuddles and love. If a baby is not held apparently it will die. Certainly the first 1001 days of a child's life are critical, this is when they form their core relationships and if these are not solid the foundations to grow into a stable, confident young adult are jeopardised.
How do we protect the mental health of children? By protecting and supporting mothers - this is crucial. But how do we do this? We can't just solely rely on overstretched mental health services. Support can manifest itself in the form of enlisting the help of family, partner, friends, a neighbour and a good GP. A new mother, especially one with mental health problems, will struggle with the demands of breastfeeding and the rigors of motherhood that are unrelenting. The chronic sleep deprivation can also make her vulnerable.
Support needs to be sustained and on-going to ensure the child is thriving and healthy, not just physically but mentally. If a mother is depressed or psychotic bonding with her children is going to be challenging, but these phases will pass although at times it might seem like the darkness is never ending.
There is much that a mother can do from the outset of her pregnancy, but she might be disinclined if she is enduring pre-natal depression; these mothers need to be monitored because a mother's depressed state will impact on her growing baby. A mother who doesn't make eye contact, smile or play with her baby - all this impacts on the mother/baby relationship and on the baby's development. Some mothers who experience thoughts/visions to harm their babies are too afraid to seek help because they fear they might be separated from their babies, or that their babies will be removed from their care permanently. I would like to believe that most mothers want the very best for their children; having mental health problems can impede that process, but with the right help they can overcome these challenges.
Even as children grow, if they are born to mothers with mental health problems they need extra care. A mother might explain her condition, when she is unwell or triggered, but these are complex issues for anyone to understand let alone a child. As long as children are getting love and stability from one person they will be ok. In my book Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too I argue that mothers with mental health problems should not be left alone with their children for prolonged periods of time. For children should not be exposed to mental illness they need to be shielded from it and yet mentally unwell mothers are left alone with children. This is just not right and yet it is the reality of the situation.
On 7th June at the House of Lords I am participating in a debate hosted by Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws Q C. Perinatal psychiatrists, MPs, mental health advocates and sufferers/survivors of maternal mental illness will be coming from all over the country to listen and participate in a debate addressing the following question:
What can we do to protect the maternal mental health of mothers and their children, especially those vulnerable to maternal mental illness in the UK and globally?
A lot can be done that simply involves caring, being compassionate, patient, neighbourly, or helping by listening to a mother that you know who is struggling on her own. There's only so much that doctors and mother and baby units can do, realistically.
Personally, I sense the current epidemic in mental health is a direct result of the erosion of community in many parts of the country and the world. Our ancestors lived in tribes, a mother was not left in isolation to raise a child, she had countless people to turn to for support, these structures of support have diminished over time and so we have to create virtual and alternative ones to protect vulnerable mentally unwell mothers and their children.
Acting now could help to stop generational cycles of mental illness. The consequences for our children will be profound, if we fail to act not just in the UK, but globally. We all must do our bit to help mentally unwell mothers, to support them and their children, too.
Sanchita Islam is the author of Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too, published under the pseudonym Q S Lam (Muswell Hill Press, 2015) and writes the blog firstname.lastname@example.org