This was originally published in The Times on May 7th. The full article can be read here:
This week is Maternal Mental Health Week, and it's time to have honest conversations about birth, and the challenges new mothers face. For many women, giving birth is a defining trauma which can linger for a lifetime.
I have been talking about perinatal mental illness in Parliament for over a year, but never has the issue been so important. In the context of Covid-19, giving birth - like almost everything else - has changed.
We have seen examples of mothers asked to deliver babies without the support of a partner in the ward, meaning they had to face the most traumatic part of the birth alone. Thankfully that guidance has changed, but many expectant mothers will have had to dramatically alter their birth plans as a result of the ongoing crisis.
New mothers then face being isolated at home with their new babies under the same lock-down rules as the rest of us.
Some new mothers may value this time with family, but for many it can be excruciating. New babies bring a huge amount of change, and research suggests that this time can be a precarious one for family relationships.
Single mothers may struggle even more. They may find themselves unable to get childcare, or rely on informal family support.
Last March I introduced a Private Members’ Bill, which would have seen all new mothers get a six-week mental health check-up. In April, this change was introduced by NHS England, a victory for new mothers across the country.
This is an encouraging first step. However, there is more important work to be done to ensure that maternal mental health is safeguarded for a post-lock down future.
Firstly, we must ensure that mental health checks for mothers are actually taking place across England and Wales.
What makes these checks special is that they happen in a separate appointment so that new mothers do not feel that their mental health is an afterthought or in competition with their baby for their doctor’s attention. We must ensure that this is still happening – even in the context of lock-down.
Evidence suggests that maternal mental illness can have devastating consequences for both mother and infant, who can carry this trauma with them through life.
The public health benefits of a properly carried out six-week mental health check for mothers are painfully clear – perinatal mental illness currently costs our public purse £8.1 billion for every year of births, with much of that cost relating to the impact on the child.
Beyond this we must also change the way we talk about motherhood.
Many women simply don’t feel able to contradict the narrative, reinforced constantly, that motherhood is meant to be wonderful. Research shows that 60% of new mothers feel unable to talk to a health professional about their emotional state. Sadly, this is not something that a six-week check-up alone can fix.
The way we treat mental health is simply not good enough. Without proper funding, mental health conditions will continue to silently cripple our communities. Covid-19 will have hugely exacerbated this problem.
We need to be honest about mental health in general, and talk about the reality giving birth, especially in lock-down. Honesty is the first step. Funding is the second.
New mothers need our support for their own sake, and for the sake of their families and their children.