Thousands of pregnant women in England were denied vital help for their mental health because of the pandemic, analysis from leading psychiatrists shows.
In 2020-21, 47,000 were expected to access perinatal mental health services to help with conditions such as anxiety and depression during or after giving birth, but only 31,261 managed to get help in the most recent data for the 2020 calendar year only, according to analysis from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Up to one in five women have perinatal mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and other conditions occurring during pregnancy or in the first year after the birth of a child.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists found that the pandemic was not the sole reason the mental health of thousands of women was overlooked. Variation in care across the country due to lack of local investment in perinatal mental health services meant that in many areas in England pregnant women and new others cannot get support.
Trudi Seneviratne, a registrar of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Staff in perinatal mental healthcare have made every effort to support women in these extremely challenging times but services have been under unprecedented strain. Funding for mental health facilities is long overdue but is more urgent in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Vicki Nash, head of policy, campaigns and public affairs at Mind, said the findings were “deeply concerning”.
“More broadly, women are among several groups that have borne the brunt of the Covid crisis with many juggling caring roles with working and home schooling, leading to a deterioration in women’s mental wellbeing,” she said.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling for funding in the next spending review. Psychiatrists are also calling on local health bosses in certain areas to address longstanding funding issues.
Perinatal mental health support was broadly on track before the pandemic. In 2019-20, 30,625 women accessed perinatal mental health services, against the expectation of 32,000 outlined in the NHS long term plan.
In all local areas in England, at least 7.1% of pregnant women and new mothers are expected to need support from mental health services. North central London is the worst performing area in the country with just 150 out of 1,521 pregnant women or new mothers expected to access specialist support, managing to get it.
Leanne Howlett, 34, experienced postnatal depression after her first child was born five years ago and had similar problems when her baby daughter was born in 2019. However, this time as she was struggling with her mental health and her daughter turned five-months-old, the pandemic also struck.
“Before coronavirus I had a nurse coming to see me weekly at home and a psychiatrist appointment, and then overnight all these face-to-face meetings switched to phone calls,” Howelett said, adding that it was harder to talk about big issues such as having suicidal thoughts remotely.
She also lost the support of friends and family, and her son could no longer go into nursery, leaving her feeling alone. “Suddenly l felt really on my own with it all, even though support was there, it was not the same.”
Howlett said she worried that services would now permanently move to being provided via telephone calls, saying more funding was needed. She also worries about cuts to health visitors, noting that it is often during these appointments that mothers “reach out” and “ask for help”.
“It is at the weighing clinic [when the baby is weighed after birth] that women reach out. I would not have picked up a phone to get help and if there is no weighing clinics then new mothers are not seeing professionals face to face after having baby,” she added.
An NHS spokesperson said: “We have already ensured that there is a specialist perinatal mental health service everywhere in the country, and as part of our Long Term Plan will continue to expand, so that at least 66,000 women will be able to access specialist care every year by 2023-24.
“This expansion includes the recently-announced hubs bringing together maternity services, reproductive health, and psychological therapy under one roof for women who have mental health needs as a result of their maternity experience.”