Mental health: Mothers in Wales ‘suffering’ without unit

After a traumatic birth, Katie’s postnatal depression became so bad that she began to self-harm.

However, the only in-patient mental health support available was in England, more than 100 miles from her home in Cardiff.

She fears other mothers are suffering due to the lack of a specialist unit – two years after the Welsh Government promised to develop one.

A mental health group and politicians have raised concerns over the delay.

The Welsh Government said it had asked for an interim unit to be established.

pregant womanImage copyrightFAMILY PHOTO
Image captionAbout 9,000 new mothers experience mental health problems every year in Wales
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In the days and weeks after giving birth, Katie, 30, struggled to bond with her baby.

She was diagnosed with severe postnatal depression and offered support by her local perinatal mental health team.

However, that help and antidepressants did not prevent her from self-harming or thinking about taking her own life.

“I just couldn’t live another day, feeling like I did and being a new mum,” she said.

“It was killing me… literally killing me. So I thought, ‘I can’t be a mum to Matilda so she’s better off without me’.

“I got to the point where I thought I couldn’t do this any more.”

When her daughter Matilda was two months old, Katie was offered a bed at the Mother and Baby Unit (MBU) in Exeter, Devon.

woman holding babyImage copyrightFAMILY PHOTO
Image captionKatie’s family faced a 220-mile round trip to visit her and her baby

For the next seven months it provided exactly the round-the-clock care she needed – but she felt “isolated”, far from home and her family.

“Mothers are suffering,” she said. “It would have made a huge difference if I was in Wales, I don’t think I would have been in there so long.

“I felt sick all the way [to Exeter]. I was scared because I was going away from my family and my support network. What was I going to do?

“I needed to go to Exeter but also I needed that outreach help to transition home, which I didn’t have.”

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Katie’s experience is not unique. In Wales, about 9,000 new mothers every year will experience a mental health problem during pregnancy or in the 12 months following the birth of their child, according to the NSPCC.

This includes depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders and postpartum psychosis.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in new mothers in the first year after giving birth.

mother and daughter
Image captionThe unit in Exeter helped Katie bond with daughter Matilda

MBUs provide specialist inpatient care to women whilst ensuring they remain with their newborn child.

However, Wales’ last specialist unit closed in Cardiff in 2013.

Since then, women in Wales with acute mental health issues have had to travel to units as far away as London and Derby, at a cost of £800,000 to the NHS in Wales.

Dr Sarah Witcombe-Hayes, from the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, has warned women are missing out on “potentially life-saving care”.

“Without a mother and baby unit women are either being admitted to an adult psychiatric unit – without their babies at that really crucial time for bonding – or are being sent to (MBUs) far from their families,” she said.

“There is emotional and financial strains for families who were having to attend (MBUs) in England (which) don’t have any services or resources available in Welsh. This was felt to be really difficult to Welsh-speaking families.”

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Lynn Neagle, chair of the assembly’s Children Committee, said mothers faced either a “damaging” separation from their babies or travelling many miles away from their families.

“We think that needs to change urgently,” she added.

In 2017 the Welsh Government committed to develop specialist support, and a permanent six-bed unit was hoped to be opened by the Swansea Bay Health Board in summer 2021.

But BBC Wales Live has been told the NHS commissioning body – Welsh Health Specialised Services Committee – wants an interim unit in a psychiatric hospital in Neath opened within in the next 12 months instead. A final permanent location continues to be considered.

The Welsh Government said it has asked the WHSSC to establish an interim and permanent unit.

A spokesman added: “We are investing £2.5m a year in community perinatal mental health services across Wales, to help identify, treat and manage mental ill health before and after childbirth.

“There are now community services in every health board area in Wales.”


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