Campaigners have expressed alarm at new analysis showing a sharp increase in new or expectant mothers waiting for mental health care, with one woman found to have waited 319 days for a first appointment.
More than 30,000 women who are pregnant or have newly given birth are on waiting lists for mental health support, according to NHS England data analysed by Labour, with the party saying many of them were being left to “suffer in silence”.
Amid rising demand for what are known as perinatal mental health services, during the period from August 2022 to March 2023 the numbers of women waiting rose by 40%. Over that same period, the numbers who accessed support also rose, but only by 8%.
A freedom of information request made by Labour to NHS England seeking the longest waiting times in the last five years showed one woman experienced a 319-day gap from referral to first contact.
The research follows recent warnings about the problem from groups such as the Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA) and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), about not just resourcing but also clarity over long-term funding, plus staffing levels and a lack of parity for the mental health side of pregnancy care.
Mental health problems can become particularly prevalent or acute among expectant and new mothers, with NHS statistics suggesting more than a quarter are affected by perinatal mental illness.
An Oxford University-led study published last year into the causes of deaths for women up to one year after pregnancy in the UK and Ireland between 2018 and 2022 found that suicide was the most common direct cause, with 40% of all deaths linked to mental health.
Rosena Allin-Khan, the shadow minister for mental health, said: “After over a decade of government neglect, mental health services are on their knees, and the government appears entirely unwilling to tackle the crisis – they have pulled their 10-year cross-government mental health plan and continue to delay the reform of the Mental Health Act. Patients are being failed.”
Karen Middleton, the head of policy at the MMHA, said the group was “sadly unsurprised” at the rise in demand, saying there were too many areas across the entire UK unable to meet basic standards.
In its own research, Middleton said, the MMHA “found that although budgets had largely increased, the pandemic has meant services are not as developed as they need to be, and the lack of funding security has impacted recruitment”.
She said: “This is inevitably resulting in women not receiving the lifesaving care they need. To break this cycle, the funding for specialist maternal mental health care must reach the teams it is intended for.”
There was also a need for better publicly available local data to help “fully understand the true scale of the postcode lottery new and expectant mothers face when attempting to access mental health care”, she added.
Last month, the RCM called for the recruitment of 350 extra specialist perinatal mental health midwives, warning that perinatal mental health care is “on the precipice”.
Sally Ashton-May, the head of policy for the RCM, said a wider shortage of midwifery staff meant even what specialists there were would often be pulled into filling gaps in regular care.
“One of the key questions is: how do you divide up your workforce to deliver everything you need to do?” she said. “And unfortunately, perinatal mental health is one of the ones that sometimes comes lower down the list, and shouldn’t.
“It is an incredibly important area, and it doesn’t have the parity of esteem. There is a lot of focus on the physical needs of women in pregnancy, and there is less resourcing around the mental health aspects of care.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said expansion of services as part of the NHS England long-term plan would mean that in 2024 “at least 66,000 women with moderate to severe perinatal mental health difficulties will have access to specialist community care, up to 24 months after the birth of their babies”.
They added: “This expansion, along with the opening of four new mother and baby units in 2019, means that in every part of England the most seriously ill women can receive residential care without being separated from their babies.”