Around 20,000 women living with mental health problems linked to being pregnant or giving birth were not able to access the support they needed last year, according to new figures.
The data was obtained by Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour’s former shadow minister for mental health, who sent freedom of information requests to England’s 54 NHS mental health trusts and shared the results with the Guardian.
Of the responses she had, Dr Allin-Khan found 11,507 women who went to get help for maternal mental health problems in 2022 did not actually receive support after being assessed.
She also said 20 trusts did not release this data, so when the findings were extrapolated across all of the trusts, it was estimated that around 18.953 mothers across England would’ve been denied care.
“It is an absolute scandal that new mothers are facing long waits for mental health services and all too often end up being turned away. No mother should be left behind to suffer in silence,” Dr Allin-Khan said.
Mothers in the UK who use services from maternal support charities Pandas Foundation UK and the Birth Trauma Association have opened up about their struggles in seeking mental health support after giving birth or experiencing baby loss.
One parent claimed that after they told their GP they had thoughts of self-harm and intrusive thoughts that their baby would be harmed in an accident, she was told: “You’re a mum now, that’s how life is.”
She said in the end she had to seek private help because NHS waiting lists were so long.
Another mum said she initially contacted her health visitor, GP, and midwife at six weeks postpartum with mental health concerns and disclosed she was having suicidal thoughts. The parent claimed it was brushed off as “baby blues”.
Parents left feeling ‘abandoned’
Annie Belasco, head of charity at the Pandas Foundation, told HuffPost UK the charity has been “inundated” with requests from parents who do not meet the threshold to be seen or have passed the NHS one-year postpartum period to be considered for treatment for their perinatal mental health.
“These results are a stark reality of the service that is not openly provided or can be relied upon by many parents,” she said. “Whilst we know the NHS are overstretched and under-resourced this leaves many parents feeling abandoned, meaning their symptoms worsen if not seen at an early interventional stage.”
She added that many parents who reach out to the charity feel there is “no point in attempting to seek further help for their mental health from the NHS, as they do not feel like they will be taken seriously or seen within an appropriate time frame”.
“I expressed feelings of distress and rage and crippling anxiety to health visitors but was largely met with ‘it’s usual to feel like this’,” one parent told Pandas charity of their struggle in seeking help.
Another revealed: “I felt like I was in a dark hole and couldn’t get out, couldn’t bond with my child, all I was doing was keeping him alive. Sounds terrible but I was numb, needed help and never was taken seriously.”
‘Shocked but not surprised’
Kim Thomas, CEO of the Birth Trauma Association, told HuffPost UK the charity is “shocked but not surprised” by the latest figures.
One parent who suffered with PTSD, severe anxiety and panic attacks, told the trauma charity their local perinatal mental health team refused to see her as she “wasn’t that bad”.
Another mum revealed she was under the care of a birth trauma midwife during her last pregnancy, due to experiencing previous birth trauma. But when she miscarried, she said she was discharged with no further support.
“I was not eligible to be under the perinatal team because I had lost my baby,” she told the Birth Trauma Association.
She was later referred to a post-loss trauma service, where she had an assessment and was then placed on a waiting list. “It was eight months after the miscarriage before I was actually able to access support,” she said.
“It was a huge struggle to get through those initial weeks and months following the loss of my baby with no support in place, and local baby loss charities also not taking on referrals due to capacity.”
In 2018, NHS England promised to roll out perinatal mental health teams across the country to support women with serious mental health problems after birth.
“In practice, while those teams have now been established, the reality is that they simply cannot cope with demand,” Thomas said, suggesting some are under-resourced, while others have been unable to recruit specialist clinicians.
“Many women tell us that when they have approached their GP or health visitor for mental health support, they have been refused help,” Thomas continued.
“In many cases, the NHS simply refers them on to us. Demand for our services is growing all the time – since January 2020, our Facebook group, a forum in which parents with birth trauma to support each other, has grown from 7,000 to 16,700 members.”
While the birth trauma charity’s support to mothers is “immensely valuable”, Thomas also acknowledged that women who experience debilitating PTSD symptoms need professional mental health support in order to be able to lead a normal life.
The consequences of not accessing high quality perinatal mental health care are estimated to cost the NHS and social care £1.2 billion a year.
In response to the latest findings, an NHS spokesperson told The Guardian: “Women across England are benefiting from specialist perinatal mental health support, with an estimated 51,000 new mums treated over the last year, up nearly 70% compared to three years ago, with every local health system now having access to a specialist community perinatal mental health team.”
Help and support:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.