A good practice guide for caring for new and expectant mothers and the people close to them has been produced by Leeds and other university partners.
Funded by the NHS, the team worked with families, NHS services and community organisations to explore how services can involve and support those closest to new mothers with moderate to severe mental health difficulties because this is key to enabling the whole family to thrive.
The research findings were used to compile the guide and a video for healthcare workers, setting out good practice in specialist perinatal mental health services and emphasising the need for support for those closest to the mother.
The researchers say providing support to fathers is key – but services must also recognise that families can look very different, from same gender parents to multigenerational households, single parents or more than two main caregivers.
Good practice includes acknowledging the mental health and wider support needs of fathers, other co-parents or partners; considering the needs of other children; being aware of cultural differences and appreciating how diverse families can be.
“We hope to encourage change at a national level in how we care for families.”
Dr Zoe Darwin, who led the project for the University of Leeds while at the School of Healthcare, said: “When a mother experiences a mental health difficulty during pregnancy or after their baby’s birth, the whole family can be affected. It can be a very stressful time for everyone concerned.
“In the guide we offer a series of ideas for how specialist perinatal mental health services can involve and support partners and other family members.
“By drawing on recent research, expert opinion, and practice examples from individual services, we hope to encourage change at a national level in how we care for families.
“Ultimately, we hope this will improve mental health and relationship outcomes for all family members.”
The good practice guide outlines key principles and ideas for involving and supporting partners and other family members – and why this is vital.
It encourages perinatal mental health services to follow three underpinning principles: Think Family, The Perinatal Frame of Mind and Stay Curious.
Think Family means services should consider the needs of the whole family; how family members can be included in the mother’s care and how they can be supported as individuals.
The Perinatal Frame of Mind points to thinking about the needs of multiple family members, being aware of the father, other co-parent or partner’s mental health and how this affects the mother and baby; how the pregnancy is affecting the partner and other family members’ health and wellbeing, and how the absence of a partner or lack of support from the family may affect the mother, baby and mother-baby relationship.
Stay Curious means thinking inclusively about how families are formed, and being open minded about who may be important to the mother.
Dr Darwin, now Associate Professor in Health Research at the University of Huddersfield, said: “Working in this way is also important for addressing inequalities. Around one in 10 fathers experience mental health difficulties during pregnancy or after a baby’s birth and currently their needs are largely undetected and unmet. In addition, minority groups face increased vulnerability to perinatal mental health disorders and barriers to accessing services.
“Consultation with stakeholders highlighted the importance of inclusivity, for example, in relation to Black and Minority Ethnic parents, LGBTQ+ parents, and to lone parents.”
The work is a collaboration between the University of Leeds, King’s College London, the University of Surrey and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.
It was commissioned by NHS England and NHS Improvement to help professionals understand how to support and involve partners and other family members of mothers accessing specialist services, in line with the NHS Long TermPlan – its strategy for the next 10 years.
The guide, Involving and supporting partners and other family members in specialist perinatal mental health services, is available to download in PDF form from the NHS England website.
The video, Good practice: supporting partners and family members in specialist perinatal mental health services, is available to view on YouTube.
Video animation and guide slides credit: NHS England and NHS Improvement.
For media enquiries, email University of Leeds Press Officer Lauren Ballinger at firstname.lastname@example.org.