Suicide is the leading direct cause of death for mums within the first year after their child is born, a newly-published report has shown.
The MBBRACE-UK report on ‘Saving Lives, Improving Mothers’ Care’ investigated the greatest risks to the lives of pregnant women, new mums and their babies.
It showed that the most common cause of death in pregnancy or in the early weeks after childbirth was heart disease. However, suicide, which has been reclassified by the World Health Organisation as a direct cause of maternal death, was the most common direct cause of death in the year after pregnancy.
The rate of maternal death by suicide remains unchanged since the last report was published in 2003.
“It is shocking that one in seven deaths of pregnant women and new mothers in the UK is by suicide,” Dr. Alain Gregoire, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ perinatal faculty and chair of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, told The Huffington Post UK.
“The majority of women in pregnancy and postnatally still cannot access NICE-concordant care for their mental health. The Maternal Mental Health Alliance is campaigning for better care for women at this critical time in their lives.”
Vicki Nash, head of policy and campaigns at mental health charity Mind, has called for the finding to lead to increased support for new mums.
“These new figures suggest that considerably more work needs to be done to support women during and after their pregnancies,” she told The Huffington Post UK.
“The Maternal Mental Health Alliance, of which Mind is a member, has found that, while specialist services are critically important, there are huge gaps in provision.
“More than 40% of areas in England have no specialist community perinatal mental health team, and those that do often fail to reach accepted standards.
“The long-term economic and human cost of ignoring the mental health of expectant and new mothers is huge, so there is a clear need for investment in services to ensure that no mother is left unsupported when having a child.”
Ruth Jackson, founder and director of Bluebell, a charity supporting families affected by antenatal or post-natal depression in Bristol, is hopeful that increased NHS funding for Community Perinatal Mental Health services will help reduce the number of maternal deaths by suicide.
“It’s been a long time coming but is good news to hear that with the new NHS England funding many areas around the UK are now getting the specialist teams of health professionals to support mums who fall into this severe spectrum, including Bristol, where we are based,” she said.
“When mums and families are affected by severe perinatal mental illness they need quick access to specialist teams and this is what’s been missing and sadly awful tragedies have occurred.
“There are still many areas of the UK who won’t be getting these specialist teams though and this is what now needs to be a priority, as all parents and families should have equal access to services across the UK – sadly it is still a postcode lottery.
“Women and families have fallen through the gaps, and this needs to change.”
However, Sarah McMullen, head of knowledge at the NCT said that while the funding is “a positive first step”, there is “still much work to be done”.
“The findings relating to maternal suicide are deeply concerning and underline the huge importance of specialist perinatal mental health services,” she said.
“Worryingly, NCT research has shown staggering gaps in specialist mental health services for new and expectant mothers – only 3% of CCGs told us they had a perinatal mental health strategy.
Donna Collins, managing director of the PANDAS Foundation added:
“It is a positive step that the World Health Organisation has now reclassified suicide as a direct cause of maternal deaths rather than mental illness related deaths. The fact remains that the number of mums taking their own lives is not reducing.
“The very recent announcement by the government for extra funding towards maternal mental health will go a long way to helping to address this, but in essence, if hypertensive disorders are reducing but suicide is not, we have a lot of work ahead.
“We at PANDAS believe education is key; vulnerable people need to be identified earlier and there be more awareness and resources available to help them.
“The aim then would be to intervene earlier and interrupt their path so that ultimately they don’t ever feel so desperate and lost that they feel the have no other choice.”
Nash has the following advice for new mums on looking after their mental health:
“Having a baby is a big life event, and it’s natural to experience a range of emotions and reactions during and after your pregnancy.
“Many new mothers go through a period where they feel down after having a baby, known as the ‘baby blues’. This usually lasts for a few days, but if it goes on for weeks or months or becomes more severe then it could be sign the mother is experiencing a mental health problem.
“Some of the common signs women should look out for are feeling despairing, lethargic, inadequate, anxious or unable to cope. Some women find that they don’t feel bonded to their baby, which can be very distressing.
“If you think you might be affected, visit your doctor, midwife or health visitor. Your GP may be able to find support groups for new mums in your area, so you can share your concerns with other people who are in a similar situation. They might also offer you counselling, or in some cases, antidepressants.”
“If you feel it’s necessary for your wellbeing to take antidepressants while pregnant or breastfeeding, you should discuss your choice of medication with your doctor. They can advise you on which drugs carry fewer risks than others.”