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Perinatal mental health support needs urgent improvement

New parents experiencing mental health problems risk being overlooked, a coalition of organisations has warned, as it urges government to improve access to perinatal mental health support.

Baby

The “rapid deterioration of universal health visiting services” has been blamed for new parents experiencing mental health problems being unable to access support when they need it.

“Health visitors play a vital role in identifying parents experiencing mental health problems and providing or arranging for support. But the health visiting workforce in England is at an all-time low and there are not enough health visitors to meet the level of need,” said an open letter to health secretary Sajid Javid from the organisations.

“Many families are not receiving the five health visiting reviews they are entitled to, or these vital checks are being delivered remotely, which makes it harder for professionals to identify perinatal mental health problems,” the letter went on.

Signatories to the open letter include representatives from the NSPCC, Barnardo’s, Action for Children, Save the Children, NCB, Institute for Health Visiting, Maternal Mental Health Alliance, British Psychological Society, Family Rights Group, Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition as well as former children’s minister Tim Loughton, Sarah Champion MP for Rotherham and Ed Davey MP for Kingston and Surbiton among others.

The letter highlights that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health problems among parents. Mums have attended antenatal appointments alone, with dads and partners often shut out. New parents have been cut off from the support of family and friends, while many have experienced illness, bereavement, and financial strain. At a time when services supporting families were needed most, they were reduced or forced to close.

In 2021, one in five babies in England did not receive their 12-month health visiting review, with a total of over 106,000 babies missing out. Since 2016, there has been a 10% decrease in the proportion of babies receiving this important check.

 The ‘Fight for a Fair Start’ campaign aims to improve access to mental health support for the one in five mums and one in ten dads who experience perinatal mental health problems during pregnancy and in the first year after birth.

The coalition highlights that, with the right support, parents can continue to develop a healthy relationship with their baby, but without this support problems can worsen and leave parents struggling with day-to-day tasks.

“We welcome the government’s ‘Best Start for Life’ vision, the £100 million announced for perinatal and infant mental health, and the focus on family help in the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care,” said the letter.

“However, we are deeply concerned that under-resourced health visiting services are causing a postcode lottery of access to support. It takes real courage for parents to open up about mental health, and when they do, a helping hand should be there. Together, we are fighting for a fair start for every family,” the letter concluded.

Sarb Bajwa, Chief Executive of the British Psychological Society, said: “We are pleased to lend our support to this vital campaign and call for better access to perinatal mental health support. It is well known that the pandemic has had a serious impact on the mental health of parents and access to services is patchy and inconsistent, which leaves many new parents who are in need of support unable to access the help they need.

“Our members who work in prenatal and perinatal mental health know all too well that without the right support, mental health difficulties during pregnancy and the first year can have not just immediate consequences, but affect the relationship between parents and their babies long-term. It is important that the government listens to the concerns of parents and those who work in the sector, and rebuilds health visiting services,” he added.

For more about the Fight for a Fair Start campaign

Open letter

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