Pregnant women and new mothers across almost half of the UK do not have access to specialist perinatal mental health services, potentially leaving them and their babies at risk, according to data released today (1).

Maps highlighting the gaps in provision are published today by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance to mark the launch of its #everyonesbusiness campaign (2 & 3). The Alliance of professional bodies, patient organisations and charities, is warning that women who develop a perinatal mental illness are missing out on essential and potentially lifesaving care.

More than 1 in 10 women develop a mental illness during pregnancy or within the first year after having a baby, and if left untreated these illnesses can have a devastating impact on women and their families. In the most serious cases, perinatal mental illness can be life threatening: suicide is one of the leading causes of death for women during pregnancy and one year after birth.

Perinatal mental health services provide specialist care for women who become ill during pregnancy or in the year after giving birth.

Dr Alain Gregoire, Chair of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, said: "The figures released today are an embarrassment for the NHS. Pregnancy and the first postnatal year are a critical time, with multiple pressures, demands and responsibilities, when women and their families should receive the best quality care. Specialist perinatal mental health services have the expertise to treat illnesses that particularly affect new mothers, and understand how to minimise the impact of mental illness on the woman's pregnancy or developing baby. Yet in almost half of the UK women still have no access to community specialist perinatal mental health services. We would be horrified if there were no maternity hospitals, and general surgeons were doing caesarean sections in large parts of the country. Equitable access to specialist care for women's mental health at this time is just as important and the NHS has a responsibility to ensure that this is available."

The #everyonesbusiness campaign, is calling for the services needed to improve the lives of all women throughout the UK who experience perinatal mental health problems, and will provide the key information and tools to support commissioners and service providers to make the necessary improvements.

To mark the launch of the campaign, the Department of Health today hosted a meeting of Ministers responsible for Maternity, and Care and Support services and senior NHS representatives to examine the current situation and plan further action. Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter said:

"It is vital that women receive the specialist care they need and this campaign is right to highlight the importance of maternal mental health. Healthcare systems across the globe have prioritised physical over mental health in maternity for too long. We are making sure that all midwives receive mandatory training in perinatal mental health, so there are specialist staff available in every birthing unit. Readjusting this balance and making fast progress really is Everyone's Business."

Notes

  1. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has conducted an audit of specialist perinatal mental health services across the United Kingdom – the campaign's website www.everyonesbusiness.org.uk features detailed maps of the United Kingdom, illustrating the gaps in these services.
  2. The Maternal Mental Health Alliance is a coalition of over sixty UK professional and patient led organisations committed to improving the mental health and wellbeing of women and their children in pregnancy and the first postnatal year.

  3. The Everyone's Business Campaign, funded by Comic Relief, calls for:
    • Accountability for perinatal mental health care to be clearly set at a national level and complied with.

    • Community specialist perinatal mental health services meeting national quality standards are available for women in every area of the UK.

    • Training in perinatal mental health is delivered to all professionals involved in the care of women during pregnancy and the first year after birth.