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Mental health services for new mothers to improve - but Northern Ireland still 'lags behind' rest of NHS

Campaigners have lobbied the Department of Health for improvements to perinatal mental health care services
Seanín Graham

SPECIALIST mental health services for pregnant women and new mothers in Northern Ireland are to be improved, with training delivered to 160 healthcare staff.

Midwives, health visitors, social workers and psychologists will be among those learning extra skills to support those most seriously affected.

There has been severe criticism of a lack of support, with research showing 80 per cent of women and families have no access to services - despite one in five new mothers experiencing depression, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic distress disorder or psychosis.

Campaigners have lobbied the Department of Health for "vital" mother and baby units across the five health trusts. Without such facilities, mothers are placed in psychiatric units and separated from their new-borns during the crucial bonding period.

The new training is to be delivered by the Royal College of Psychiatrists NI, working on behalf of the Public Health Agency (PHA), and will be rolled out this autumn.

Dr Julie Anderson, consultant psychiatrist with the college, hit out at the "inexcusable" lack of provision that left the north "lagging" behind the rest the of the NHS in its perinatal mental health care.

In England, £365m has been spent and there are also 19 specialist mother and baby units where mothers who require admission do not have to be separated from their child.

Two more such units exist in Scotland, which has spent £50m. Wales has invested £7.5m but has no dedicated unit.

A total of £17,000 is being invested in the latest training in the north.

Dr Anderson said: "Pregnancy and the early postnatal period for many mothers is a fabulous time of life but it is a period in life when women are most at risk of developing a new mental illness or experience a relapse of a pre-existing one.

"There is clear evidence that specialist perinatal services reduce risk, improve outcomes and indeed save money to the public purse.

"Therefore, it is inexcusable that in Northern Ireland we lag so far behind the rest of the UK in the development of much needed specialist services. If women require admission to hospital because of mental illness they have to be separated from their baby as we still do not have a mother and baby unit.

"We warmly welcome this vital funding. It will help train health professionals on how to deal with the many mental health challenges a new mum may face. However, we still have a long way to go if we're to get on track.

"We need ring-fenced funding for specialist community perinatal mental health services in each health trust and for a regional mother and baby unit."

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