‘Urgent need’ for investment in maternal mental health services

Following extensive research, experts say lives and costs could be saved by investing in perinatal services. Credit: PA

The prevelance of mental illness in pregnant women in Northern Ireland has sparked calls for more investment in specialist services.

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have looked at the potential links between maternal mental health problems and adverse outcomes for babies, in the largest ever study of its kind.

The study found women who reported a history of a mental disorder were more likely to have premature deliveries and babies born with a low birth.

The research was carried out by Queen’s University together with clinicians working in maternal mental health in collaboration with the Health and Social Care Trust.

Almost one fifth of women reported a history of mental disorder, for example schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression.

Compared to women who did not report a history of mental disorder these pregnancies were more likely to result in premature deliveries and babies born with low birth weight.

APGAR scores, a measure of how healthy a baby is in the immediate period after birth were also found to be lower.

Since 2010, women in Northern Ireland have been specifically asked about a history of mental health problems, as part of the pregnancy screening system carried out by midwives.

There are currently no specialist perinatal mental health services in four out of the five trusts in the region, and only a limited service in Belfast. In addition, there is no specialist mother and baby unit.

It is estimated perinatal depression, anxiety and psychosis carries a total long-term cost to society of about £8.1 billion for each one-year cohort of births in the UK.

Dr Ciaran Mulholland, Clinical Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry at Queen’s University Belfast said:, “Given the lack of large-scale research studies of this nature globally these results are extremely important for the development of perinatal health services everywhere."

Research team member Dr Janine Lynch, who is a Consultant Psychiatrist said: “These findings highlight the urgent need for investment in the provision of specialist maternal mental health care in Northern Ireland.

“By addressing the urgent need for investment in the provision of specialist maternal mental health care, lives and costs will be saved.”