04/03/2015 12:03 GMT | Updated 20/05/2015 06:12 BST

Mental Health And Parenting

Mother with daughter (6-11 months) in living room

We tend to believe that having children will make us happy – but as many of us discover, that's not always the case.

One in five mothers will experience mental health problems during pregnancy or in the first 12 months after birth.

And it doesn't stop there – parenthood, life and stress continue to take their toll as children get older. One in three women in the UK take anti-depressants at one time or another in their lives. As for dads, one in five of fathers with children under 12 will have a depressive episode, with the highest risk being in the child's first year. If you are struggling with your mental health, you are certainly not alone.

Over the last few weeks I've been speaking to a range of experts, and parents who have suffered from mental health problems.

And the more I find out about the gaping chasm between what should be provided for women and their families, and what is actually there for them, the angrier I get.

Mental health and parenthood are seen as separate issues, and both are overlooked, despite the impact on children and families.

This is all the more remarkable when we consider that mothers have been handing down their mental health issues through the generations – this is not a new problem.

In the 1960s and 70s, mums in their droves took the edge off their problems with Valium – it was even nicknamed 'mother's little helper'.

Before that, many women turned to opiates and alcohol, and for more serious mental health problems, treatments such as electric shock therapy and insulin coma therapy.

Now, we have Prozac and all his little SSRI friends to help us. But substandard mental health care for pregnant women and new mothers is still creating costs of more than £8bn every year, according to a recent study.

Mums with mental health problems are falling through the net – they're not spotted, they're not referred to the right agencies and they're often given conflicting or plain wrong advice. Speak to pretty much anyone working in this field and the phrase 'postcode lottery' will come up.

This isn't just leading to yet another generation of miserable mothers – it's contributing to problems for children too, which can range from premature birth and infant death through to emotional and behavioural problems. And fathers' mental health can have a huge impact on their children too.

It's time we stopped the rot. It's time we stopped passing on our mental health issues from one generation to the next. But how? Better, quicker treatment, certainly. A report commissioned by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA) last year found that perinatal depression, anxiety and psychosis carry a total long-term cost to society of about £8.1 billion a year.

The study found that there's currently enough talking therapy available to just 15 of the 211 clinical commissioning groups in England have a formal strategy for perinatal mental health services. Some areas have special mother and baby mental health units, many don't. There's no specialist perinatal mental health service at all in 40 of areas in Wales.

So the treatment of mothers with mental health issues is, in many cases, diabolical. But what about prevention? And why are so many of us miserable in the first place? Mental health problems for mums can range from ante-natal and post-natal depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to postpartum psychosis. There are obviously different factors at work here.

However, we also need to look at some of the common issues around modern life, parenthood and stress which must surely be contributing to some of these problems. The simultaneous glorification and demonisation of motherhood. The 'have it all' generation.

In the space of a century, our expectation of women has changed beyond recognition. We've gone from women being sent into service at the age of 12 before marrying and bearing dozens of children, to women who are hot-housed through school, university and career until bang! Now have a baby quickly, NOW, before it's too late! And suddenly your life is turned on its head and you're left scrabbling about trying to piece it back together.


We demonise young mothers and pour scorn on older mothers. There is no 'right' way to be a mother, so we all feel like we must be getting it wrong.


There's the loneliness of the modern mother, often living hundreds of miles away from her own mother, grandparents and siblings who would once have supported, helped and advised. There's the divide between the world of work and the world of family which makes the two so incompatible. The boredom, the lack of appreciation, the endless, endless attempts to forge a life of your own, to live up to being told 'you can be whatever you want to be' while simultaneously bringing up small children with huge demands of their own.

Meanwhile our expectations of men have changed too – we now expect them to be hands-on, and emotionally involved with their children as well as earning a living and supporting their families materially.

Perhaps this is too huge to tackle. It's certainly too huge to change in one generation. We need to take baby steps towards making our society more sustainable for parents and their families.

But there are certainly easier strides we can take in terms of improving treatment.

The MMHA's report suggested that the NHS would only need to spend £337m a year to bring maternal mental health care up to recommended levels around the country. That might sound like a lot, but compared to £8 billion, it's really not that bad.

In an introduction to the report, Alain Gregoire, chair of the MMHA, says the current statistics are shocking and calls for urgent action from policy makers, commissioners and providers. "It is in their power to do something about this issue: if perinatal mental health problems were identified and treated quickly and effectively, many of these serious and long term human and economic costs could be avoided," he says.

"The good news is that, with the right help, women can recover from these illnesses. There is widespread agreement about what services are needed for women affected by perinatal mental illnesses, and, in some parts of the UK, women receive world-class care. However, in many areas perinatal mental illness goes unrecognised, undiagnosed and untreated, leading to avoidable suffering for women and their families."

Useful contacts:
The Samaritans: 08457 90 90 90 (UK)
Action on Post Partum Psychosis
The Birth Trauma Association
Bluebell: 0773 8628 842
Fatherhood Institute
Family Lives: 0808 800 2222
Family Links: 01865 401800
Maternal Mental Health Alliance
Pandas Foundation: 0843 2898 401
Royal College of Midwives