Joint Coventry and Warwickshire approach to improve mental health support for new parents

Partners throughout Coventry and Warwickshire are coming together to raise awareness of support for new parents and reduce stigma surrounding mental health after a local mum has come forward following a traumatic birth and start to parenthood.

During World Mental Health Day this year there has been an importance on recognising that more than 1 in 5 mothers and 1 in 10 fathers face mental health challenges including stress, anxiety and depression, during pregnancy and a child’s early years. Unaddressed these may impact on bonding and attachment between parent/s and infant and can have lasting impacts on child and adult mental health.

For many people starting a family is a milestone, but it can also be a stressful time and many parents experience mental ill health. Local mother, Leanne Howlett, had no history of mental health difficulties before she had her son in 2016, but a distressing birth left her struggling to breastfeed.

“Following the birth of my son I was expecting to feel instant love for my son but it never came. All I remember thinking is what was wrong with me?

“Every time someone came to visit us they would gush over my son and talk about how amazing it was to have a baby. How could I possibly tell them that it couldn’t have been further from the truth. I wasn’t enjoying it, I felt lost and overwhelmed. I remember thinking I wanted to go back to work and my old life. To the outside world I put on an act that everything was fine. I met friends for coffee, went to baby groups with a friend who’d had a baby at the same time and posted smiling pictures of us on social media, too afraid to tell anyone how I really felt for fear they would think less of me.”

Soon after following a stay in hospital with sepsis Leanne found that her depression deepened, she was referred to the perinatal mental health team by her midwife to see a psychologist. However, she struggled to engage, having little understanding of mental health services and support and felt intimidated and panicked by talking therapies. Unable to open up to her psychologist in sessions, Leanne was severely depressed and given a prescription for antidepressants.

“By this point I had convinced myself that I was a waste of space and that everyone would be better off without me. The thoughts used to gnaw away at me until eventually it was all I could think about. If I was out in the car on my own I would fantasise about driving into the oncoming traffic and twice almost did.

“One day I just broke down and cried to my psychologist that I wanted to die. It was at this point the crisis team became involved in my care. I went into total panic convinced they would tell me I wasn’t fit to be a mum and that I couldn’t look after my son or that they would think I was crazy and whisk me off to some psychiatric unit.”

The reality of the involvement of the crisis team support was that there was no stigma around her perinatal mental illness or mention of taking her son away. Social workers helped Leanne talk through her feelings, explained the support available to her, how it would work and help her, and agreed a plan together of how to keep her safe.

“Once I engaged with services my recovery came on so much and I started to see shadows of the person I once was. It became much easier to help myself once I had seen those flickers of happiness and the ‘old me’ and it became a case of riding out the dark days and remembering that tomorrow might be better.

“I learnt to become a lot more understanding of the depression and to be kinder to myself. The antidepressants also lifted my mood enough that I could start utilising the CBT techniques I was being taught. I remember the first time I was hanging out washing and I caught myself singing along to the radio completely unconsciously. I knew at this point I was starting to recover.

“I eventually found the courage to confide in a few of my closest friends, who felt incredibly guilty that they hadn’t noticed. They were completely shocked – they all thought I didn’t seem “the type” to get postnatal depression.”

Portfolio Holder for Adult Social Care and Health, Cllr Les Caborn said:

“Supporting our residents is a key priority for Warwickshire County Council. Mental Health is an important topic, and something that we should all focus on as we do our physical health. There are support services throughout Warwickshire to support parents and parents-to-be throughout their journey and it’s important for anyone who may feel they need some additional support to access help as soon as they can.”

Director of Public Health and Wellbeing at Coventry City Council, Liz Gaulton said:

“It is important that we continue to work closely with our partners to provide parents in Coventry with the help they need in the early stages of parenthood and stand by them to reduce challenging stigmas.

“This not only means raising awareness among parents about the support available to them, but better equipping our frontline health professionals to recognise early signs of perinatal mental illness, have those difficult conversations and signpost accordingly.”

Dr Sharon Binyon from The Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Partnership Trust (CWPT) said:

“Coventry and Warwickshire Partnership NHS Trust wants to acknowledge Leanne coming forward to tell her story, which we’re sure will help other mothers to recognise that anxiety and depression following the birth of their child is neither unusual; nor something that they should feel ashamed about.

“We are very pleased that she has found the services provided by our Trust to be non-stigmatising and helpful to her.

“We provide specialist perinatal mental health care, but through our general mental health services (particularly crisis and home treatment) we are able to support mothers who have significant mental health problems, and signpost them to the community resources available.

“We would also like to wish Leanne every success with the By Your Side forum in future.”

The Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Partnership Trust (CWPT), Coventry City Council and Warwickshire County Council are working to highlight support already available in local communities, as well increase support via a long-term plan. This includes improved training for frontline staff on perinatal mental health crisis services to reduce maternal suicide with the ability to have open discussions and know when to signpost for specialist support. In order for real change to occur there will be an increase in local parent-infant relationship expertise around attachment issues prevention as well as encouraging active communities and peer networks to support parents and their infants.

This follows research which shows that the first 1001 ‘critical days’ (pregnancy and the first 24 months) represents a crucial period of change in brain development which has lasting impacts upon a child’s emotional development.

Leanne now dedicates her spare time to running By Your Side, a forum supporting families through perinatal mental illness.

There are multiple services in Coventry and Warwickshire perinatal mental health and wellbeing services such as the Family Health and Lifestyles service. This is an integrated 0-19 provision with early years services such as health visiting, family nurse partnership supporting first time parents, infant feeding, and Stop Smoking in pregnancy, infant feeding. MAMTA runs in the Foleshill area of Coventry, supporting women who are new to the UK or are from a black and minority ethnic groups.