How Covid restrictions are fuelling a postnatal depression crisis

Amy Leggatt is a bubbly Year Six teacher from Lancashire with a beautiful baby daughter.

It took over three years to conceive the baby she and her partner had longed for.

But Sophia was born in April, at the height of Covid pandemic restrictions, leaving her mother desperately isolated.

Amy had never experienced mental health issues before. But a traumatic birth - which she went through largely without her partner - separation from family and friends, and a lack of contact from health visitors meant she found it almost impossible to cope.

"I had my six week check but that was over the phone and I really, really struggled with that because at that point I knew something was wrong and that I was mentally really struggling," she said.

"It got to the point where I was thinking that I didn’t want Sophia there and that my life had been completely ruined."

With the help of her partner, Amy is now on the road to recovery.

But despite repeated calls to health visitors and her GP, she is still waiting for a referral to NHS support services.

She isn’t alone.

The online chat forum Mumsnet surveyed 1,517 of their users who were pregnant during the coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Their findings, shared exclusively with ITV News, show how isolated most new mothers have been.

  • 88% say they could not attend parent and baby groups because of pandemic restrictions.

  • 85% say they have been unable to have partners with them at important healthcare appointments, like scans.

  • 77% say they have felt scared or isolated at some point during their pregnancy because of Covid restrictions.

  • 74% say they have had fewer visits at home from midwives or health visitors because of restrictions.

  • 39% say they received bad or difficult news at a pregnancy or maternity healthcare appointment without having a loved one there to support them.

Every year around one in seven women will experience postnatal depression.

But earlier this week, Andrea Leadsom, the Conservative MP heading a government review designed to give babies the best start in life, warned the restrictions could fuel an “epidemic” of postnatal depression.

At the Perinatal Mental Health Service in Leeds - which includes an inpatient unit for the most seriously ill mothers - the Covid restrictions have contributed to almost every case of postnatal depression.

One young mother, who asked to remain anonymous, described how lockdown had left her feeling so helpless, she decided her two young children would be better off without her.

She credits the NHS Mother and Baby Inpatient Unit with saving her life.

Mother and Baby units can support women with postnatal depression and their babies. Credit: ITV News

At the unit, her seven-month-old son is cared for with her. It’s a bright welcoming place with smiling babies and dedicated staff.

But Covid visiting restrictions limit the amount of time she can spend with her partner and their three-year-old.

Dr Nicola Singleton describes how fewer antenatal classes and health visits mean mothers seek help later, resulting in more severe symptoms by the time they arrive.

The unit is coping, but the challenges the pandemic presents are significant.

"Usually we would involve partners and extended family and they would be spending time on the unit here," she explained.

"They would have more support from us. We are trying to do that over the phone and on video calls but its not the same as face to face conversations".

On Wednesday, NHS England revised its guidelines for maternity services.

They now read: "It is our aim, further to a risk assessment, that a woman should have access to support from a person of her choosing at all stages of a maternity journey and that all trusts should facilitate this as quickly as possible."

A Department of Health and Social Care Spokesperson told ITV News: "The mental health of expectant and new mothers remains a priority and we have provided £9.2 million in funding to national and local mental health charities to support people affected by the pandemic."

For many new mothers, those changes can’t be delivered quickly enough.

If any of the details in this report have affected you, or somebody you know, more information and help is available here:

The NHS Information Page has details of the symptoms and treatments for postnatal depression.

Mental health charity Mind has details of where to get treatment and support for postnatal depression and perinatal mental health.