New and expectant mums face increased mental health risks caused by the pandemic

A new report from the Maternal Mental Health Alliance and Centre for Mental Health calls for Ministers to fill the pre-Covid gaps in specialist perinatal mental health services

During and after pregnancy, women have faced greater likelihood of poor mental health during the pandemic, including anxiety, depression, loneliness and suicidal thoughts, according to a new report commissioned by a coalition of leading maternal mental health organisations. 

Women of colour and women from poorer economic backgrounds are more likely to experience mental health problems during and after pregnancy, according to the research. 

The rapid review of evidence commissioned by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA), and conducted by Centre for Mental Health, for the first time compiles all available evidence into one place. This shows that access to crucial services reduced for pregnant women, new mums and babies across the UK, especially during the early stages of the pandemic. While health and care staff worked hard to deliver safe care, significant gaps emerged. Women also experienced a reduction in informal support from friends, relatives and networks of other women sharing their experiences.

Extra pressures include anxiety about giving birth during lockdown without partners present, fears of losing jobs, heightened levels of domestic violence, bereavement, worries about catching Covid-19, and concern about new infants catching the disease. 

The MMHA, a network of over 100 national organisations, together with lived experience champions and clinicians, is calling on Ministers to fill the pre-Covid gaps in specialist perinatal mental health. In addition, the wider system surrounding these services, including health visiting and maternity, needs to be protected and enhanced. Furthermore, up-to-date monitoring and research of maternal mental healthcare should be commissioned. It also says that without sustained funding, many Voluntary and Community Services will not survive, despite the increased demand from women for their services. 

Luciana Berger, chair of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA) said:

‘Today’s report should serve as an ear-splitting warning siren about the dangers to women’s maternal mental health and potential risks to the wellbeing of their babies. The pandemic has placed additional challenges on new and expectant mums getting the care and support they need, taking many already-stretched services to the point of breaking. Women of colour and women from disadvantaged backgrounds have been particularly impacted, and Ministers must address this injustice with urgency.’ 

Sarah Hughes, chief executive of Centre for Mental Health, which carried out the research, said:

‘The Covid-19 pandemic has been a mental health challenge across society, but it has not affected everyone equally. It has placed especial pressure on women during pregnancy and after they’ve given birth. And it has made inequalities that were always there in plain sight even more pronounced. We need to take this opportunity to review and reframe what support women should expect for their mental health during the perinatal period, and to make sure that we prepare for any future crisis to avoid another loss of support at a crucial time in people’s lives.’

Aleema Shivji, Comic Relief Executive Director for Impact and Investment said:

‘The pandemic has put an unprecedented strain on the nation’s mental health and it is sadly no surprise that, as this report proves, pregnant women and new mums who face enormous challenges, have sadly been worst affected.  It’s clear that more work is needed urgently to help tackle the shame and stigma attached to maternal mental health for mums to feel recognised, supported and able to ask for help. At Comic Relief we have prioritised funding mental health services for over 25 years, but it is clear this is still needed now more than ever.’

Dr Jess Heron, CEO, Action on Postpartum Psychosis said:

‘At APP we welcome this report that clearly evidences the needs, gaps and inequalities in maternal mental health and calls for immediate action. Postpartum psychosis is a psychiatric emergency in all cases - and one that needs specialised treatment and support.

‘For many mothers during this pandemic, isolation and fear has been magnified - women have battled illness and recovery without the support of wider families and communities. Essential frontline professionals have been redeployed, and services and health professionals stretched to breaking point. As a charity, we’ve heard examples of staff and services going the extra mile to overcome huge challenges presented by the pandemic but, for some, experiences of birth have been needlessly traumatic. Some women at high risk of PP have had to give birth without their partner present, despite knowing of their high risk of developing this rapid and severe onset of mental illness.’

Today’s report Maternal mental health during a pandemic was commissioned by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance and conducted by Centre for Mental Health, and covers all four parts of the UK.

Anybody in need of support or information regarding postpartum psychosis can find a wealth of information here.