Women's health

Perinatal mental health

Pregnancy and childbirth are normal life events, with a range of emotions throughout this journey, however these normal emotions can be complicated by disturbances in mental wellbeing.

A mental health condition is considered a disability if it has a long-term effect on normal day-to-day activity. This is defined under the Equality Act 2010. The condition is ‘long term’ if it lasts, or is likely to last, 12 months. ‘Normal day-to-day activity’ is defined as something that is done regularly in a normal day. This includes things like using a computer, working set times or interacting with people.

Perinatal mental health (PMH) is the overarching term for mental health during pregnancy and the first postnatal year. It can be characterised by either an existing mental health issue or a condition that arises during pregnancy, or related to pregnancy.

Evidence from the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests that worldwide about 10 percent of pregnant women and 13 percent of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder, primarily depression. In developing countries this is even higher, i.e. 15.6 percent during pregnancy and 19.8 percent after child birth. In severe cases mothers’ suffering might be so severe that they may die by suicide. See: Maternal mental health.

Mental health in pregnancy

This information is written for midwives, nurses and healthcare professionals caring for:

  • any woman who has mental health problems during pregnancy
  • any pregnant woman who has had a mental health problem in the past
  • and their partner, family and friends.

Mental health in pregnancy, produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (2018) provides useful information on:

  • mental health problems in pregnancy
  • how to stay well during pregnancy and after the birth of your baby
  • how to decide whether or not to take medication in pregnancy
  • what help and support there is during pregnancy and have a mental health problem. 

Women and mental wellbeing

Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with a mental health problem. 53 percent of women who have mental ill-health have experienced violence/abuse or post traumatic distress disorder (affects over 31 percent of the population).

Severe mental illness support during pregnancy

In 2021, the charity Tommy’s partnered with KCL, NHSE and PHE to produce a suite of resources to support women with a severe mental illness (SMI) to make informed decisions around when to get pregnant, what to watch out for and how to treat their condition during and after pregnancy.

The resources include a new online information and support hub for anyone with SMI planning a pregnancy, as well as practical guidance for the frontline healthcare professionals who support them. Tommy’s also updated their Planning for Pregnancy tool so that users with severe mental illness get specific tailored advice. 

Impacts on mental well-being

Impacts include:

  • feelings, thoughts and actions
  • physical health, wellness and experiences
  • education and employment
  • social/family relationships
  • economic and social circumstances
  • lifestyle choices
  • culture and ethnic background
  • gender and sexuality
  • use of drugs or alcohol
  • past experiences
  • any dependents e.g. a child or elderly relative.

1. Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

2. Severe mental health issues include:

  • depression
  • psychosis and bipolar disorders
  • personality disorders

3. Some developmental conditions are more likely to have mental health problems including: 

  • autistic spectrum disorders
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

4. Suicide and self-harm

5. Perinatal mental health (PMH) - mental health during pregnancy and the first postnatal year. Characterised by an existing mental health issue or a condition that arises during pregnancy, including: antenatal depression and postpartum.

During pregnancy and after birth woman may also be subject to specific mental health issues, generally identified as antenatal depression.

Antenatal depression can occur at any stage during pregnancy.

Postnatal (or puerperal) disorders include three main presentations:

  • maternity blues, normally occurs around days three to four and affects 80 percent of women
  • postnatal depression, affects 10 percent of women
  • puerperal psychosis, rare but severe form of psychiatric illness.

MIND (2020) provides further information on:

  • Perinatal depression
  • Perinatal anxiety
  • Perinatal Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Postpartum psychosis
  • Postpartum Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder (PTSD)

Key symptoms of depression

  • emotional – sadness, irritability, anxiety, apathy, anhedonia
  • cognitive – Inappropriate guilt, inattention, poor concentration, delusions, memory disturbances
  • physical – disturbance in sleep, appetite, lethargy, fatigue, headaches or vague pains
  • behavioural – tearful, withdrawn, irritable.

  • recognising and understanding the woman’s mental wellbeing
  • general support and understanding
  • cognitive behavioural therapy
  • pharmacological/medication. 

Continuity of care is a key component of maternity care, and care for mental well being. These should include:

  • identify that there is an issue
  • diagnose
  • early intervention
  • appropriate care
  • aftercare. 

When asking a woman ‘how are you feeling?' consider asking the following supplementary questions:

  • do you take time to look after yourself?
  • how are you coping?
  • do you feel low?
  • are you sleeping poorly?
  • are you not eating properly?
  • are you tearful, angry and/or anxious?
  • do you have concerns about your mental health?
  • do you have anyone to talk to about your concerns and what impact is this having?

This should lead to a diagnosis of mental wellbeing as well as physical health.

The Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA) is a coalition of over 90 UK organisations (including the RCN). This includes professional bodies such as Royal Colleges and organisations that represent, or provide care and support to, parents and families. The MMHA works across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Their vision is to see all women across the UK get consistent, accessible and quality care and support for their mental health during pregnancy and in the year after giving birth.

The MMHA has a wide range of contacts and resources on their website. 

Scotland

In Scotland, perinatal and infant mental health services are delivered by health boards, integrated authorities and the third sector. 

In the past few years it has been an area which has received increasing attention and funding from the Scottish Government. In March 2019, the Perinatal and Infant Mental Health Programme Board was established to oversee, provide strategic leadership and have overall management of the delivery of improved perinatal and infant mental health services, alongside a £50 million investment in services. The review focuses on improving support during pregnancy and birth, better training and awareness of people working with vulnerable families & delivering improved infant mental health support for families. RCN Scotland is a Board member and has engaged with this work throughout.

While the development of services was put on pause during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, this Programme Board continued to advice on the content of online support materials via the Parent Club website. The remobilisation of perinatal mental health services, along with other mental health services, is one of the priorities of the Scottish Government.] In September 2020 (as part of the 2020-21 Programme for Government), the Scottish Government announced a £1m Perinatal and Infant Mental Health Fund which will support 16 third sector organisations to deliver perinatal counselling and peer support."

Wales

The Wales Perinatal Mental Health Network is aimed at delivering high quality perinatal mental health care to individuals and their families across Wales. In 2016, the Children Young People & Education Committee (CYPE) undertook a review of perinatal mental health services (PNMH) across Wales and in September 2018, From Bumps to Babies: Perinatal Mental Health Care in Wales was published. This led to the development of a National Clinical Lead for Perinatal Mental Health role for Wales with a focus on providing national leadership, coordination and expertise for the further development of perinatal mental health services and workforce, including quality standards, care pathways, professional competencies and training resources.

The focus is on:

  • Strengthening Partnership Working 
  • Developing a Fully Integrated Care Pathway to provide the right care, at the right time and by the right people
  • Providing high quality care that meets national standards
  • Ensuring we have a workforce with the right skills, knowledge and supervision (NHS Wales Health Collaborative 2020)

Northern Ireland

In January 2021, Northern Ireland’s Health Minister, approved funding for the development of a new Perinatal Mental Health Delivery Model, including specialist multi-disciplinary perinatal mental health teams in each of the five trust areas. Further details are available here

Further resources

Action on Postpartum Psychosis. Information and support for anyone affected by postpartum psychosis

Association for Post Natal Illness. Provides support for women experiencing postnatal depression

Best Beginnings

Birth Trauma Association. Support for anyone affected by birth trauma, including partners

Fatherhood Institute. Information, research and training to support fathers and their families

Maternal OCD. Information and support for people experiencing perinatal OCD, and their families

Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA)

MMHA (2021) Maternal mental health during a pandemic: A rapid evidence review of Covid-19’s impact

Maternal Mental Health Scotland

Mental Health Foundation (2016) Fundamental facts about mental health 2016

MIND (2020). Postnatal depression and perinatal mental health

MIND Cymru

NHS.UK. Mental health problems and pregnancy. A pregnancy and baby guide

NICE. Mental health and wellbeing. All NICE products on mental health and wellbeing. Includes any guidance, advice, NICE Pathways and quality standards

NICE quality standard (2016). Antenatal and postnatal mental health. See also: Antenatal and postnatal mental health pathway

NICE pathway. Identifying and assessing mental health problems in pregnancy and the postnatal period

PANDAS Foundation. Information and support for anyone experiencing a mental health problem during or after pregnancy

Rethink. Charity supporting equality, rights, the fair treatment and maximum quality of life for all those affected by mental illness, their carers, family and friends

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Management of Women with Mental Health Issues during Pregnancy and the Postnatal Period (Good Practice No. 14). This document provides guidance on the diagnosis and management of postnatal depression. Mental illness makes a significant contribution to maternal deaths

Royal College of Psychiatrists. Mental health in pregnancy. This information is written for any woman who has mental health problems during pregnancy and any pregnant woman who has had a mental health problem in the past

Young Minds. Charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people.

Page last updated - 13/04/2021