New and expectant mums in Plymouth struggling with their mental health will soon be able to access new support, thanks to an initiative by Livewell Southwest’s Perinatal Mental Health Team.
Perinatal mental health (PMH) refers to mental health issues occurring during pregnancy or in the first year following the birth of a child.
The term covers a wide range of difficulties and conditions including post-natal depression and post-partum psychosis.
Livewell Southwest is the provider of integrated physical and NHS mental health services and adult social care in Plymouth, supporting people to lead independent, healthy lives. The social enterprise’s Perinatal Mental Health Team works to prevent, detect and manage mental health problems with a goal of helping women and their families to continue to live independently, prevent admissions to acute mental health wards and support the development of the relationship between new mums and dads with their babies.
The community-based team is made up of perinatal nurses, family support workers, a clinical psychologist, perinatal consultant psychiatrist, administrator and a new peer support facilitator, led by Susie Theobald, Clinical Team Manager.
Susie said: “The mums we support can be suffering with pre-existing and enduring mental health issues who are at risk of relapsing after giving birth or they’re women who have never experienced an issue with their mental health before.
“We do lots of preventative work and have continued to offer support during COVID-19 through telephone and video consultations and still carried out face to face visits when it’s been the right thing for mum and baby.
“Experiencing mental health issues can cause a lot of anxiety for new mums. If they’re struggling to bond with their baby or suffering from postnatal depression this can have a real effect on not just their bond and relationship but on the baby’s wellbeing too and can lead to the baby suffering with ill mental health later in life. A lot of what we do is to promote mum’s mental wellbeing and making sure they’re finding time to eat and relax and getting sleep so by keeping mum well we’re also protecting the next generation.”
Jennifer Scarborough has recently joined the team as a Peer Support Facilitator and will oversee the peer support programme which will enable women experiencing low level perinatal mental health issues to access support from other women who have been through similar issues and experiences.
Jennifer, who has worked as a midwife and psychology lecturer, said: “My role is to develop the programme using evidence-based interventions and putting together and developing training for peer supporters.
“As a team we don’t want to turn anyone who is referred to us away so the programme will act as a kind of safety net to ensure we can support even more women.
“We will be recruiting mums with lived experience of perinatal mental health who are doing well in their recovery and who can provide their insights and support. I will make sure that they feel supported and have the tools they need to support the mums coming through the programme.
“Having someone that you can talk to with no judgement who has been through a similar experience as you is so crucial.
“These women will be able to offer a whole new level of empathy and coping strategies that we might never have thought of because we haven’t had those experiences.”
And it’s not just mums and babies who will benefit but dads too as Jennifer will be setting up peer support groups for fathers.
She added: “Becoming a parent for the first time especially is life changing in itself and if your partner has never suffered with mental health problems before and suddenly you have a new baby and you want to support your partner it can be a real struggle so it’s really important that we can support those dads too.”
And this is something the wider team also do in their roles.
“By working with the wider family it means that mum and baby have a really good network of support around them and don’t feel so isolated which is something lots of the mums we’ve been caring for during COVID-19 are feeling,” Susie added.
According to NHS figures, around 20% of new and expectant mums are affected by perinatal mental illness, with many still afraid to speak up and ask for help.
The team work closely with midwives, GPs and health visitors to help them spot the signs and to let families know that support is out there.
Susie said: “There is still a lot of stigma around mental health and particularly during pregnancy. Most mums who see us feel shame as there’s this expectation that you’ll have this glowy wonderful feeling while being pregnant and when you get to hold your baby but it’s not like that for everyone.
“There’s a fear that if they tell you how they’re really feeling and that they don’t enjoy being a mum that we might take baby away so we try to normalise those feelings and remind them that we’re here to support them and help them enjoy having their baby.
“My advice is to please remember that you’re not alone and that there is support available here for you so please be brave and ask for it. No one is here to judge and we want to help and support women so that they can enjoy being a mum and form those life-long bonds with their baby.”
As well as virtual sessions, Jennifer is hoping to set up groups including a dog walking group, pram walking groups and an allotment for women to meet.
She said: “Unfortunately COVID-19 has meant that we haven’t been able to set up some of the face to face groups and there’s a lot of anxiety for new mums to leave the house at the moment so my priority is to get some online groups up and running by autumn.
“Sometimes it can be nerve-wracking having to speak to a professional so by holding sessions where people can come together and just talk, it will hopefully take away some of that pressure and allow them to organically open up about their problems.
“I’m looking for mums and dads who have experience of perinatal mental health to become peer supporters so if you’re interested or would like to find out more, please email me: [email protected]”