'Mas Matter campaign' event held at Stormont and hears calls for more support for new mothers

Crowds gathered at Stormont to demand increased mental health support for new mothers.

A series of speakers at the 'Mas Matter' event shared their experiences of alleged shortfalls in service provision, which they claim are putting the mental health of mothers at risk.

The Mas Matter campaign, led by the Women’s Resource and Development Agency, has two meanings. It stands for Maternal Advocacy and Support, but also refers to one of Northern Ireland's colloquial ways of saying 'mum'.

A new leaflet launched at the event in the Long Gallery contains a wishlist for improvements to current systems.

Clare Anderson, Mas Project Coordinator, explained the flyer is the brainchild of women involved in the scheme.

“Women have highlighted key areas that would make a difference to their experience such as compassion, non-judgement, better communication, signposting to services and earlier identification of a perinatal mental health problem.

"We understand how stretched the health service is and how hard they are working but we want health leaders to see the care from the perspective of the women they treat.”

Jannine Barnes' baby Jessica was born in 2018 with heart problems.

She felt like the support she needed was not in place, and her mental health subsequently suffered. Now, Ms Barnes is calling for better communication for new mums as a measure that could have prevented the anxieties she suffered.

"When we were sent home, we had midwives and health visitors coming every other day. We never had the same midwife, never had the same health visitor.

"Having to re-live everything over and over again - why she was going blue when feeding, why she was breathing so quickly - was just exhausting.

"There was no communication between health visitors on a day to day basis."

Ms Barnes, who is now involved with Ballybeen Women's Centre and the Mas Project, outlined what she believes would help.

"Continuity of care," she replied. 

"The same midwife, the same health visitor, to build a rapport and the trust with someone.

"This person's coming into your home, into your house, they're seeing you in your pajamas, you need to be able to trust them and be able to offload."

Deirbhile Liggett, 25, has much in common with Ms Barnes. 

The west Belfast mum also experienced difficulties with her mental health after giving birth, and is therefore raising her voice to inspire change.

"I went to hospital to have my baby, and it quickly turned into an emergency C-Section.

"Thanks to the staff, my baby was delivered safely.

"But it was after... My partner only got to stay for two hours because of covid-19. 

"I spent the whole time thinking about what had just happened. 

"Thankfully I have a happy and healthy baby now, but I still carry that emotion and trauma from that night I spent in hospital."

Ms Liggett says she spoke out at the event because she wants other women to hear the "real and the raw".

"It's crazy to think that you're fighting for mental health," she said.

"This is something that shouldn't even be discussed, it should be here anyway.

"We're fighting for a mother and baby unit, how much longer do women need to suffer in general psychiatric wards, being split from their baby?

"There is no mother and baby unit on the whole of this island - what is going on?" 

For Northern Ireland's Mental Health Champion, the only thing standing in the way of successful delivery of improved services could be money.

It comes as all parties have already signed off on the plans.

"It's not controversial so the minute we get [Stormont] up and running it should be possible.

"We have specialist perinatal mental health services in place in two of the trusts already and another two are recruiting now, so that's really positive, and that is an action in the 10 year mental health strategy and we're on year one at the minute, but we need much, much more money next year.

"We need over £20million next year for that part of the strategy - so my concern would be that that money does need to be released by an executive because we don't have a health minister in place at the minute."

In response to the appeals for improved services, a Department of Health spokesperson said: "In January 2021 the Minister for Health approved funding of £4.7m for the development of a new specialist perinatal mental health service model for Northern Ireland.

"Phase one of implementation focuses on the roll out of community perinatal mental health teams across the region, while the next phase is the consideration of a Mother and Baby Unit.

"The Community Perinatal Mental Health teams have been designed to increase awareness of mental illness and offer support and interventions to women during pregnancy and up to a year after giving birth, including in relation to Postpartum psychosis, thereby improving the health and wellbeing of women, their infants and their wider families

"Implementation of community perinatal mental health teams in each of the trusts continues to advance with both the Belfast and South Eastern Trusts providing a full consultancy and referral service. The remaining trusts are rolling out services in line with the appointment of core staff. It is anticipated that they will be fully operational in early 2023."

"The Mental Health Strategy 2021-31 sets out and reaffirms the previous Health Minister and Department’s commitment to enhance and develop perinatal mental health services for the region by committing to continuing the rollout of specialist services. To support this work, the Department is moving forward on the development of a Strategic Outline Case for a Mother and Baby Unit for the region."

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