Suicide still a leading cause of maternal death

Posted By: Amy Tubb

12th October 2023

  • Research

2 minute read

MBRRACE-UK’s latest Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths has been released.

The ‘Saving Lives Improving Mothers’ Care 2023’ report investigates the individual cases and circumstances surrounding the 241 women who lost their lives during or within a year after pregnancy between 2019 and 2021. It examines each of these tragedies to uncover vital lessons that must be learned to prevent avoidable deaths in the future and offers concrete recommendations aimed at professional organisations, policymakers, commissioners, and health professionals.

This report serves as a poignant reminder of the pandemic’s profound impact, especially on new and expectant mothers. We pay tribute to the 33 women lost to COVID-19, and acknowledge the lasting repercussions on families, healthcare professionals, and broader services.

Alarming maternal mental health findings:

  • Suicide continues to be the leading cause of direct maternal death between 6 weeks and 12 months after birth, accounting for a staggering 39% of deaths in this period.
  • 37% of the women who died were known to have a previous or existing mental health condition.

Inequalities endure:

  • 12% of women who lost their lives experienced severe and multiple disadvantages, including mental illness, substance misuse, and domestic abuse. The stark reality is that all women with multiple disadvantages had a mental health diagnosis, and this was often a critical factor in these cases.
  • The disparity in outcomes for Black and ethnic minority women continues. Black women are nearly four times more likely to die during and after pregnancy, and Asian women are twice as likely compared to their white counterparts.

Targets are being missed

  • The rate of maternal death in the UK has risen by 15% in 10 years.

The Government’s ambition was to reduce maternal mortality in England by 50% by 2025. Instead of witnessing a decrease, the numbers are sharply rising, even when we exclude COVID-related deaths. At this rate, this critical target will be missed, and women’s lives will continue to be lost.

Laura Seebohm, CEO of the MMHA, reflects:

“The importance of these reports really cannot be understated. MBRRACE honours the lives of new and expectant mothers and gives clear recommendations so that valuable lessons can be learnt, and we can prevent these avoidable tragedies in the future. As ever, my heart goes out to the women behind the statistics, and the families grieving them.”

“Tragically, it is now a theme in these confidential enquiries to find that suicide is the leading cause of maternal death in the year after birth. Yet, we know that with the right care, women can and do recover. More must be done to make sure we reverse the trends we’re seeing.”

“This year’s report underscores a dire need for action. Pregnancy and the postnatal period should be a time when women can access care and support for their mental health needs, as much as their physical health. We must make sure every interaction with a healthcare professional counts. Each contact is an opportunity to sensitively ask about mental health, tackle stigma and meet women with compassion. An action plan based on the recommendations in the report is needed now. We cannot wait any longer to ensure all women can access life-saving mental health support.”

Further information

You can find the full report, lay summary and infographics here.

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