Parity between mental and physical health is fundamental to getting it right for women, babies and families

Posted By: Justin Irwin

20th September 2022

  • Policy
  • Services

3 minute read

I joined the wonderful Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA) earlier this year, new to the world of perinatal mental health. I’ve been blown away by the incredible commitment and passion of the perinatal mental health sector – whether I talk to charities, experts by experience, specialist teams in Mother and Baby Units (MBUs), obstetricians on maternity wards, policymakers and politicians – people involved with perinatal mental health come with vitality, energy, and determination for our purpose. I hope that everyone realises how valuable and now refreshing this is.

With many years in the women and girls sector, this is not a totally new landscape but the biggest surprise for me, coming specifically into the maternal mental health sector, was just how huge the distance is between investment, data and attention given to maternal mental health compared to physical health for new and expectant mothers.

In recent months, various new consultations and initiatives have been announced focusing on women’s health in England, Scotland, and Wales. The recent publication of the Women’s Health Strategy for England, the Maternity Disparities Taskforce, and the appointment of Lesley Regan as Women’s Health Ambassador are important milestones in addressing the health inequalities women face.

When we get it right for women, everyone in society benefits.

Professor Dame Lesley Regan, Women’s Health Ambassador

The consultations and strategies are welcome, however, there is scarce mention of mental health, let alone maternal mental health, in any of them and a concerning lack of any detail when it comes to actions to address the issues.

The glaring omission is, to put it mildly, disappointing, especially as the past two years have highlighted the vital importance of good mental health for everybody.

Many of the recent consultations have asked women to share their – in some cases traumatic – experiences of maternity and postnatal care. It is vital that policies are based on lived experience, so it is always good to see the right voices being sought, but it is galling for those who respond if nothing changes. All too often we hear from women who haven’t felt listened to or taken seriously. Those with the power to make things better must truly take heed of the personal stories shared and act on them urgently to improve the narrative for future mothers, babies, and families.

Over the last decade, Governments have consistently recognised the critical need for parity of esteem between mental and physical health services. Still, the reality of what comes out tells us otherwise. In the face of all the evidence, how is mental health not front and centre of all health-related policy documents and consultations?

We know when it comes to maternal mental health the evidence is clear. The economic case has been well documented, but alongside these figures, the stark human cost is also well known.

Just in case we need reminding:

  • Perinatal mental health issues affect 1 in 5 new and expectant mothers and 70% of those underplay or hide the severity of how they are feeling.
  • As a consequence, only 50% ever have their mental health needs identified and of those, only 50% receive treatment.
  • Outcomes are not the same for all women and we know there are significant disparities experienced by women of colour, women from deprived communities and those facing additional adversities.

The recent gaps in policy documents are a clear reminder to us all that, despite all our passion and progress over the past 10 years, there is still an urgent case that needs to be made for investment in perinatal mental health.

And despite the political, economic, and environmental instability we face and the pressure on our workforce, we cannot lose sight of the fact that maternal mental health is the greatest health complication during the perinatal period and the leading cause of death in the first year after birth. With a new Prime Minister and Cabinet in England, there is a crucial opportunity for the voices of women and families to be truly listened to. Support and investment in services cannot be seen as an ‘added luxury’ but as an essential element of care.

The MMHA has a responsibility to use our influencing and campaigning voice as an Alliance to champion high-quality compassionate services as well as amplify the social, economic, and cultural factors which impact maternal mental health. We strive to take a leading role, shine a light, be bold and stand up for greater parity. All mothers, babies and families deserve that from us, and I am privileged to be leading and supporting the Alliance to do just that.

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