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Pregnant women and new mothers need more psychological support, says the Maternal Mental Health Alliance

by Laura Woodroffe
Tuesday 09 September 2014
416 1968

Pregnant women and new mothers need more psychological support to prevent depression and post-natal trauma say leading psychologists.

According to the Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA) more than one in ten women develop a mental illness during pregnancy or in the first year after giving birth. But, while many people have heard of post-natal depression, most people remain unaware of other wide ranging difficulties pregnant women and new mothers can face.

In the UK, around 10,000 women a year develop what is known as Birth Trauma after a difficult delivery. This is a condition that expresses as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and can lead to symptoms including distressing flashbacks, anxiety, panic attacks, and a fear of hospitals. Over 200,000 women across the country experience at least some of these symptoms after giving birth, reports the Birth Trauma Association.

Registered Psychotherapist Sheila Lauchlan  says: "It's important that this problem is acknowledged and that people are supported to deal with it. Realistically there is always going to be birth trauma, but the important thing is that women realise there is help for them, they can move through it and get on with their lives".

Post-natal PTSD is usually a reaction to the physical trauma of birth, but can also be exacerbated by uncaring treatment from medical professionals. Furthermore, women who have had a history of abuse or previous trauma are at greater risk of being affected.

Symptoms of PTSD can continue for many years after the birth, affecting relationships and day-to-day life, says Sheila, with some women becoming so afraid of falling pregnant that they avoid sex altogether, and others plagued by terrifying nightmares. "It can have a major impact on people's lives," she explains. "Women who have been through this sort of thing only have to think of the birth and they are back there, reliving it."

"Women who have been through this sort of thing only have to think of the birth and they are back there, reliving it."

Lauchlan offers couples therapy to help treat post-natal PTSD: "Relationships are affected, but more than that, the woman's partner may also be suffering from PTSD as a result of witnessing their loved one in an extreme and painful situation," she says.

Conditions like post-natal PTSD have gained increasing media coverage in recent months, especially following new MMHA campaign 'Everyone's Business', which calls for better provision for pregnant women and new mothers.

According to campaigners, Western medicine has become so focused on the physical effects of pregnancy that it disregards the importance of nurturing and maintaining mental health. This is despite the fact that recent studies show that a mother's mental health has a knock-on effect on the wellbeing of her child, and that suicide is one of the leading causes of death for pregnant women and new mothers. Clearly attitudes need to change.

A report released by The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) revealed that almost half of all women living in the UK have no access to community specialist maternal mental health services. There is also a shortage of beds in specialist mother and baby wards, and insufficient staff numbers to meet demand.

Dr Alain Gregoire, Chair of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, said that the RCPsych findings were an "embarrassment for the NHS. Pregnancy and the first post-natal year are a critical time, with multiple pressures, demands and responsibilities, when women and their families should receive the best quality care," he explained.

"We would be horrified if there were no maternity hospitals. Equitable access to specialist care for women's mental health at this time is just as important and the NHS has a responsibility to ensure that this is available."

It is hoped that maternal health will become a greater priority as the NHS plans to have a specially trained midwife in every delivery unit by 2017.

Finding support

You can find out more about symptoms and causes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including how to find a therapist. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

Find a Therapist working with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

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Updated 23 October 2014