Partners of new mums with mental illness set to get targeted support on the NHS

New and expectant fathers will be offered mental health checks and treatment under radical action to support families, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens announced today (2 December 2018).

In the landmark move, the partners of pregnant women and new mothers who are themselves suffering from anxiety, depression or more severe disorders such as psychosis will be automatically offered a comprehensive mental health assessment and sign-posted to professional support if needed.

The expansion of perinatal mental health services, alongside wider health services, will be set out in the forthcoming NHS long term plan.

It will mean that partners of expectant and new mothers who are seriously unwell, are not left to suffer in silence with mental health issues but are offered a range of help such as peer-support, behavioural couples therapy sessions and other family and parenting interventions in specialist community perinatal mental health settings or referred to a leading psychological talking therapy programme.

Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England said: “At what should be one of the happiest moments of our lives, caring for a partner suffering mental ill health when a new baby arrives is a difficult and often lonely experience. Alongside the backup and friendship of other new parents in NCT and other groups, the NHS has a role to play in helping support the whole family. These days dads and partners are rightly expected to be more hands on and NHS mental health services also need to step up and support families at times of extreme stress and anxiety.”

There is growing evidence of the mental health risk new and expectant fathers face. In the first six months after the birth of a baby, estimates put the prevalence rates of anxiety and depression symptoms in men at up to one in 10, while one in five women will experience a mental health problem during pregnancy and the first year after birth.

Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s national mental health director said: “Any form of mental ill health during pregnancy, labour or early parenthood is a huge concern and it doesn’t just disrupt life for mums but also for dads, partners and the wider family. The NHS has made huge strides forward in improving mental health care for new mums and ensuring their partners are properly supported too is the next logical step.

“We want to give every family the best possible start in life and this will help do that.”

Dr Giles Berrisford is associate national clinical director for perinatal mental health for NHS England said: “Mental illnesses are cruel and they seem doubly cruel when they affect parents making that transition into family life. The expansion of perinatal mental health services with specialised community and inpatient beds helps to ensure mums with severe perinatal mental illnesses receive the help they need, when they need it. It is essential to support those people who care for these mums the most – their partners. This targeted support will help to achieve this.”

As well as being crucial to new mothers, newborns and their families, perinatal services, parent bonding sessions, alongside other treatments for common mental illnesses like Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT), can play an important role in ensuring mental health is weaved into overall healthcare at the earliest possible stage of life.

IAPT is widely-recognised as the most ambitious programme of talking therapies in the world and in the past year alone has had over one million people referred for care.

NHS England is ramping up support with specialist community perinatal mental health teams set to cover the whole country by April next year, offering evidence-based psychiatric and psychological assessments and treatment for women with moderate to severe mental health problems during the perinatal period. They can also provide pre-conception advice for women with a current or past severe mental illness who are planning a pregnancy.

Teams can be made up of nurses, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, nursery nurses, peer support workers and administrative staff, who all work together to provide a comprehensive service to mums, depending on what their individual needs are – with 9,000 women expected to have been treated this year.

The health service has also pressed ahead with plans to open four new, eight-bedded mother and baby units (MBUs), which will provide specialist care and support to mothers in parts of the country where access has historically been a problem.

Three new units have now opened – two eight bedded units in Kent and Lancashire, while a third interim four bedded unit opened in Devon in the spring, in advance of a full new unit which is under construction and opening next year. Another unit is expected to open in East Anglia in New Year.

NHS England plans to expand the current mother and baby unit bed capacity by 49%, so that there should be more than 160 beds for severely mentally unwell mothers to receive specialist care with their babies across England.