Leona O'Neill: It's time to give new mothers in the north a Fair Start

New research from the NSPCC has highlighted that the north's health service is lagging behind Britain's in terms of being equipped to help new mothers. However, the fight to correct this dangerous deficit has already begun, as Leona O'Neill reveals

Around 10 to 15 in every 100 women are affected by postnatal depression
Around 10 to 15 in every 100 women are affected by postnatal depression Around 10 to 15 in every 100 women are affected by postnatal depression

NEW research has revealed that thousands of women are falling through the gaps in Northern Ireland's mental health provision immediately before and after the birth of their children.

Recent research by NSPCC Northern Ireland, the Royal College of Midwives and the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association has demonstrated significant gaps in the provision of vital services and care for women and their families affected by perinatal mental health illnesses.

The NSPCC last week launched a new campaign 'Fight for a Fair Start' which calls for improved perinatal mental health provision to ensure babies and families have the best start. It has highlighted that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK which currently has no commitment to invest in this vital issue.

The charity has also highlighted the impact of our lack of specialist services, including a mother and baby unit for new mothers experiencing more serious perinatal mental health conditions. It means that women who need specialist inpatient care are admitted for treatment in a general psychiatric ward, separated from their baby during this period.

This is a serious issue and one that can have a catastrophic impact on families throughout the north. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, around 10 to 15 in every 100 women are affected by depression and anxiety during pregnancy, with the same prevalence of women experiencing postnatal depression.

Around one in every 1,000 women experiences postpartum psychosis, described as the most serious type of mental illness experienced after childbirth. Almost 60 per cent of new mothers with post natal depression did not seek medical help, due to them not understanding what was happening or for fear of the consequences of reporting the problem.

Without proper help and support, Northern Ireland's impending and new mothers will slip through the cracks of our health care system and we are at risk of losing them.

Back in March, the Scottish government announced a £50 million investment to improve services, and England and Wales have also made significant investments in this area. However, there continues to be no commitment to funding these vital services here.

Perinatal mental health problems are one of the most common complications that a woman can experience when having a baby, with up to one in five women affected during pregnancy and in the year after birth.

In Northern Ireland, that means up to 4,600 live births could be affected within a year. If untreated, perinatal mental illnesses can have a devastating impact on women, babies and families. Problems include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic distress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders and postpartum psychosis.

Perinatal mental health problems can also make it harder for parents to provide the care that babies need for healthy social, intellectual and emotional development.

Launching Fight for a Fair Start last week NSPCC Northern Ireland called for all women and their families to receive care from a health visitor and midwife who has received appropriate and up-to-date training to detect perinatal mental health needs.

They want all areas of the north to be covered by high-quality, specialist community perinatal mental health services and a mother and baby unit, so that where a woman lives doesn't determine her access to support. And they want investment to be secured and spent on facilitating these changes in order to transform perinatal mental health services here.

Caroline Cunningham, senior policy researcher at NSPCC Northern Ireland, said our new mums and dads are not receiving the mental health support they need to give their babies the best start in life and that the Department of Health must make a commitment to remedy this and ensure life-saving treatments are available.

In their report, one anonymous mum said that she had been living in Scotland but returned home to the north to give birth to her first child. She said she failed to receive the mental health support she needed around the pregnancy and birth.

"I felt what should have been a joyful occasion was tarnished and it was all my fault," she said.

"I left the hospital feeling such shame, embarrassment and worry. My fears of my baby being taken away turned into believing that my baby was going to die.

"I was breaking down and I knew I needed help to cope but I was horrified to discover the mental health services I needed weren't available in Northern Ireland, although I knew I could have received support if I had remained in Scotland.

"I had to fight so hard to get anyone to listen to me. One person who was my beacon and came to my rescue was my health visitor. She filled me with much needed reassurance. She put me in touch with a community women's centre, who helped me and I eventually started to gain some relief."

Our situation needs to change. And your voice can make a difference. The NSPCC is inviting people to join the campaign by raising their voices and contacting the permanent secretary of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland at