More than 11,000 women who sought help for mental health problems during or after pregnancy in England last year did not receive any care, according to NHS figures obtained by Labour. This is a scandalous situation that exposes the gaps and delays in accessing maternal mental health services, which have been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The figures, which were revealed in response to a parliamentary question, show that 11,507 women who were referred to perinatal mental health services in 2022-23 were not seen by a specialist within six weeks, or at all. This represents 17% of the total number of referrals, which was 67,373.
Labour’s shadow minister for mental health, Rosena Allin-Khan, who obtained the figures, said: “These are shocking statistics that show the true scale of the maternal mental health crisis we face. Thousands of women are being left to suffer in silence, without the vital support they need.”
The impact of Covid-19
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health of new and expectant mothers, who have faced increased isolation, anxiety and uncertainty. A survey by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA) found that more than half of pregnant women and new mothers experienced a deterioration in their mental health during the first lockdown in 2020.
The MMHA also warned that the pandemic has disrupted the delivery and quality of perinatal mental health services, which were already under-resourced and unevenly distributed across the country. According to the MMHA’s latest report, only 16% of the specialist perinatal mental health community teams in England met the national quality standards and the NHS Long Term Plan ambitions, which aim to ensure that every woman who needs specialist care can access it.
Emily Slater, the chief executive of the MMHA, said: “For the more than one in 10 expectant and new mothers experiencing mental health problems, and the increased numbers as a result of the pandemic, there needs to be a system of care available to support them. These new figures show that too many women are still being let down by a lack of timely and appropriate care.”
The need for more investment and support
Perinatal mental health problems can affect anyone, regardless of their background, age or circumstances. They can have serious consequences for the health and wellbeing of the mother, the baby and the whole family. Some of the most common conditions include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and postpartum psychosis.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists estimates that perinatal mental health problems cost the UK economy £8.1 billion per year, mainly due to the long-term impact on the child. However, with the right treatment and support, most women can recover and lead fulfilling lives.
The NHS has committed to expanding and improving perinatal mental health services as part of its Long Term Plan, which aims to offer specialist care to at least 66,000 women with mental health difficulties related to pregnancy, birth or parenthood by 2023-24. The plan also includes the establishment of 26 new mental health hubs across England, which will provide integrated physical and psychological care for women and their families.
However, experts and campaigners say that more investment and support are needed to ensure that every woman who needs help can access it, regardless of where they live or when they seek help. They also call for more awareness and training for health professionals, more peer support and involvement of women with lived experience, and more research and data collection on perinatal mental health.
Dr Trudi Seneviratne, the chair of the perinatal faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Perinatal mental health services have come a long way in recent years, but there is still a lot more to do to ensure that every woman who needs help gets it. We need to see sustained funding, workforce development and service improvement across the country, as well as more support for women and their families during the pandemic and beyond.”