Preventing suicide and poor mental health in new mums

A recent study by The Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths, based at the University of Oxford, found that ‘around half of suicides by women while pregnant or after giving birth could be prevented by better standards of care’.

The good news is that, overall, the number of maternal deaths during pregnancy and the first 6 weeks post birth are decreasing. Tragically, the number of indirect deaths - those attributed to pre-existing medical conditions and mental health causes - have not changed since 2003 and remain high. Almost a quarter of those deaths between six weeks and one year after pregnancy were due to mental health related causes, 1 in 7 died by suicide, over a 100 in total between 2009-2013.

In order to change this, we need to do several things: reduce stigma, increase awareness, educate our health professionals as well as the population at large, ask for help.

Stigma, is a huge issue and to reduce this, we need our health professionals to ask the difficult questions at every opportunity in a compassionate supportive way, in order to give the women a safe space to disclose how they are feeling. Women need reassurance that they will be supported and their children won’t be removed because they are struggling with mental health difficulties.

We need health professionals to take greater responsibility and co-ordinate the specialist care our women need and not to assume that someone else is doing this. We also need our health practitioners to communicate with their colleagues within their own teams as well as within other disciplines. Preferably concerns would be referred to a specialist mother and baby unit, however as 50% of the UK don’t have access to these units, this creates difficulties within localities.

Ideally we need all mothers to have access to specialist mother and baby units and in the short-term, to compensate for a lack of access, we need all our practitioners within maternity services and mental health teams to access specific training on perinatal mental health, in order to understand the unique features of mental health problems at this vulnerable time.

We also need our women and families to be honest about how they feel and ask for help. Women are the experts on themselves. They know when they feel different. There are lots of changes that take place for a woman during pregnancy and following the birth of a baby, both physical and emotional, however, if the feelings of low mood, anxiety and panic are persistent and don’t lift, it is crucial she asks for help.

The longer the mental health problems are left, the more entrenched the symptoms become and the more vulnerable and at risk the woman becomes. If a woman doesn’t feel heard, understood or supported, we need her to seek a second opinion or ask her family to help support her to access the help she needs.

The tragedy is maternal mental health problems are temporary and they are very treatable, no woman should have to go through this alone.

Find out more about our Mums and Babies in Mind project