THE BLOG
10/10/2013 06:20 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Fear and Shame Prevent Mothers Getting Help With Mental Health Issues

Thursday saw the publication of a valuable report that brings to life the experiences of thousands of mothers affected by maternal mental illness and their reluctance to seek professional help.

The NSPCC also published a report on this important issue earlier this year. Since then, more than 20,000 women in England will have experienced a perinatal mental illness. Most of these women may have had mild anxiety and depression. But many - tens, if not hundreds - will have been effected by severe, and sometimes life threatening depression or psychosis.

The poor awareness and understanding of these problems in our society mean that many women feel that they are on their own. Fear and shame mean that they don't ask for help, and as a consequence, they don't get the support they need.

Thursday's Perinatal Mental Health report - from Tommy's, netmums, RCM and the Institute of Health Visiting - shows that 34% of women were not honest about their illness because they were concerned that their baby might be removed.

We all need to address this misconception. Services should be perceived as a source of support, not sanction. It is true that maternal mental illness can have negative impacts on babies: Mothers who are struggling to deal with untreated mental illnesses can find it hard to give their babies the sensitive, responsive care that they need. But this is exactly why families need to be able to access help. It is very unusual that a baby will be removed from their family, but if services know that a mum is struggling they can help her to cope with her mental illness and to bond with her baby.

Sadly, too few mothers today have a relationship with a trusted midwife or health visitor who can reassure them that it's ok to ask for help. Thursday's report reveals, as ours did, that many women see a different midwife or health visitor at every contact, their appointments can feel short and rushed, and opportunities for sensitive, supportive conversations are missed.

It is critically important that all new mothers receive continuity in their care. Midwives and health visitors want to provide this crucial support, but they need the time and support to develop strong and supportive relationships with women, and the confidence to identify and act on mental health problems when they do arise.

In Thursday's report, professionals identified that they have had insufficient training in maternal mental health. Other research shows that only 17.6% of midwives said they had sufficient training in maternal mental illness. This clearly needs to change. We have argued that every area should have a Specialist Mental Health Midwife who can champion the needs of women with perinatal mental illness in their area, and provide training and advice for other maternity staff.

The Government has accepted that current care is not good enough and needs to change. It has mandated NHS England to ensure that every woman has a named midwife who can provide her with personal 1:1 care, and to improve diagnosis and intervention for postnatal depression.

The next report I'd like to see, is one that sets out how they will achieve this.

Every day in the UK, 200 babies will be born to a mother who has, or will develop a perinatal mental illness. The research is clear. It's time for action.