If you sit in a room full of new mums the probability is that one in five of them are suffering from a mental health problem.
You may not know it, as it is still a hidden condition for many. The stigma of admitting that everything is not OK prevents too many mums from seeking help. And so they cope alone. And, if they do ask for help, so often they find that there is not enough out there for them. Isn’t it time we started to take mental health as seriously as physical health and make sure every mum gets the postnatal depression treatment they need?
How many is too many?
Statistics reveal that as many as 10 – 20% of mums develop a mental health problem during pregnancy or in the first year after birth.
With 665,000 births a year in England alone, this means at least 66,500 – 133,000 women a year develop problems. That’s an awful lot of mums suffering with a debilitating condition that not only affects them but their family too.
A sliding scale
Pregnancy and birth can exacerbate or worsen existing mental health conditions, as well as trigger new ones. New mums can suffer from mental health problems that range from pre or postnatal anxiety, low mood, depression and postnatal psychosis.
Depression and anxiety are the most common conditions suffered by new mum, with around 12% experiencing depression and 13% having anxiety.
At the more serious end of the scale one in two of every 1000 women experience postpartum psychosis, which is a serious mental health condition requiring urgent treatment. Symptoms include hallucinations, confusion, delusions, mania and depression. In extreme cases suicide is a real risk.
Why mums don’t ask for help
There is a still a stigma surrounding postnatal conditions, meaning many mums either dismiss their feelings and try to cope alone or feel too ashamed or afraid to ask for help.
Talking to the BBC about her feelings after the birth of her baby, new mum Ava said:
I didn’t think I was unwell. I thought, ‘All mums feel like that, this is just mum mode, I’m a mum now. I’ve got to put up with feeling this way.
Another mum, Lauren, said:
I didn’t know where to go to, where to turn to, to get support.
When she did go to her GP she was told that all they could provide to help was medication.
Why pills alone are not a quick fix
In 2016 over 70 million antidepressants were prescribed in the UK. However, not all medical experts believe that they are the right treatment for mental health conditions and, if given, should also be supported by other treatments, such as talking therapies and counselling. This does not always happen.
Talking to The Independent, another mum Rosie talks about how being handed antidepressants with no other form of help made her feel brushed off by health professionals:
I suffered in silence for a long time and when I finally sought help when my daughter was 8 months old, I was given antidepressants and wasn’t followed up again by anyone. I felt completely unsupported by health care professionals, despite my ever increasing mental illness.
The best help for mums suffering from postnatal conditions
It is widely agreed that talking therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, counselling and specialist help is the best course of action for mums suffering from PND and other post birth mental health conditions. Antidepressants can be helpful too, but work better in combination with further specialist support.
In the Independent’s special report on mums and PND , Bridget, who had PND twice after the births of both her babies, spoke out about how getting the right combination of help was her ‘saving grace’. She said:
I started antidepressants about six weeks in, first time around. That step, combined with counselling – which was a huge release – and support from loved ones, got me through. Within a year I felt able to come off the medication, and to consider another pregnancy. Second time around, I welcomed the antidepressant back like an old friend within a fortnight. I had also researched cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and felt it was the right therapy for me that time – and it was, it changed my entire perspective.
But this is where we have a problem in the UK because, depending on where you live the support for PND sufferers is either ‘completely supportive’ or virtually non existent.
It’s a postcode lottery
Becoming a new mum can be one of the most magical and joyous experiences that any woman can go through. It can also be traumatic and difficult.
A leaked report in 2018 revealed that thousands suffer alone because there is not enough specialist help available in the NHS and the ‘gap’ in help is too wide. The report found that in some parts of the UK support services are ‘patchy’ and in other areas they are non existent. Women face a postcode lottery when it comes to getting the help they need. Commenting on the findings, Dr Alain Gregoire, the chairman of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, said:
If we didn’t have enough staff and time in maternity services for women to be tested for diabetes or high blood pressure, and to give them the care that they need, that would be a national scandal. But the equivalent is what’s going on in maternity services.
Every mother must get the help she needs
Lucie Holland knows only too well how devastating the impact of postnatal illnesses can be. Her sister Emma took her own life after suffering PND, leaving behind her baby son Harrison. Now Lucie is campaigning to try to ensure that no other family suffers in the same way.
In a statement in a report centering on Lucie’s campaign, she explains why things need to change, saying;
No one wishes to believe or admit PND could even happen after the birth of a baby. The very idea of it contradicts everything we are told to expect – the happy beginnings and positive emotions. PND is a social taboo, discussed quietly amongst groups of women with trepidation – if at all – behind closed doors and away from men.
We will keep shouting and trying to enforce change until every woman who has a baby and becomes mentally ill afterwards is able to get the care and support they need, regardless of where they live, and not be afraid to reach out for such support.
Something has to change
Every new mum who suffers from a postnatal mental health condition should feel able to ask for help and should then quickly receive the help she needs to recover.
Nobody chooses to have a mental health condition. It is not something mums should feel ashamed of or judged for. And it is not something that just goes away.
In 2017 Theresa May vowed to ‘use all her powers to transform mental health services’. We hope that these changes happen to help every mum get the help she needs. As quickly as possible. No matter where she lives.
See our article on Postnatal anxiety, what we don’t talk about for more on this lesser known postnatal condition.
- RCM Perinatal Illness Report
“Every mother must get the help they need”
The report of the analysis of comments left at Lucie Holland’s
Change.org petition about the urgent need for better awareness
and care for those affected by maternal mental health problems
- “Thousands of mothers left to cope alone with mental illness” Denis Campbell, The Guardian
- “Maternal Mental Health – Women’s Voices”, Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists
- “Third of mothers’ experience mental health issues” by Katie Silver, BBC News
- “Should we worry about taking antidepressants?”, BBC TWO
- “The postnatal depression lottery: four women’s experiences”, The Independent