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Less than 10% of pregnant women with mental illness referred to specialist, survey finds


24 February 2017

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Only 7% of women who reported experiencing a maternal mental health condition were referred to specialist care, according to a survey by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG).

The survey of over 2,300 women who have given birth in the last five years revealed low rates of specialist referral, long waits, and a lack of consensus over medication and little support for partners.

Only 7% of women who reported experiencing a maternal mental health condition were referred to specialist care, according to a survey by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG).

The survey of over 2,300 women who have given birth in the last five years revealed low rates of specialist referral, long waits, and a lack of consensus over medication and little support for partners.

Just over 80% of women said they experienced at least one episode of mental illness during or after pregnancy, with low mood accounting for over two thirds of these episodes, anxiety for around half and depression for just over a third.

But only 7% who reported experiencing a maternal mental health condition were referred to a specialist and for 38% of the women who were referred, it took over four weeks to be seen, with some waiting up to a year for treatment.

The survey found that women frequently reported receiving inconsistent and conflicting advice around whether to continue, stop or change their medication.

The women also said that care was often rushed, with some saying that when they voiced concerns they were shut down or had to repeatedly ask for help.

Professor Lesley Regan, president of the RCOG, said the survey results showed that the NHS ‘is letting some of the most vulnerable women in our society down’.

She added that the ‘fragmentation of health care provision’ account for a number of the problems facing women as they access mental health care.

A lack of continuity of care was often cited by women in the survey as a reason why they were uncomfortable with raising mental health problems with healthcare professionals.

She said: ‘Access to specialist community perinatal mental health services is crucial and greater integration between primary and secondary care will ensure that women are referred in a timely manner and receive the right support throughout their pregnancy and beyond.’

Dr Alain Gregoire, chair of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, added that suicide is the leading cause of maternal death and that the survey just shows ‘the tip of an iceberg of suffering that has been ignored for too long’.

He said: ‘Despite some additional funding, GPs, midwives, health visitors, therapists and specialists providing perinatal mental healthcare are under extreme pressure, and in half of the UK, pregnant women and new mothers have no access to the care they need.

‘Yet leaving this inadequate care for perinatal mental health problems adds costs to society of £8.1bn each year, of which over £1bn is borne by the NHS.’

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