Scots mum encourages healthcare professionals to tackle mental health stigma among new and expectant parents

Posted by See Me, 4 May 2023

A new suite of resources has been produced to help healthcare professionals tackle mental health stigma for pregnant people and new parents, and encourage more to seek help when they are struggling.

It is estimated that 20 per cent of mothers and 10 per cent of fathers experience poor mental health in the perinatal period – the time from pregnancy through to birth and the first year of a child’s life.

Launched during Maternal Mental Health Week (1-7 May), the new resources, produced by See Me and the Mental Health Foundation, are designed to help practitioners, commissioners and providers reduce perinatal and infant mental health stigma in services.

Make a difference

Lynne Fox, 32 from Dunfermline, gave birth to her first child in 2020. During her pregnancy, she experienced extreme anxiety and struggled to get support. She says that the new resources have huge potential to make a difference for new and expectant parents across Scotland.

She said: “I was delighted to be pregnant, I was really happy – but I also had very bad anxiety. It was really difficult because it started to consume me. If I wasn’t sleeping, it was on my mind all the time that something bad was going to happen to me, something bad was going to happen to the baby.

“I spoke to my GP and I spoke to my midwife so many times, and they would say, ‘This is normal, it’s your first baby.’ I understand that in any pregnancy, there can be a normal level of anticipation and worry because you don’t know what’s going on and so much of it is outside of your control. But for me, it was impacting on so many areas of my life that I really didn’t feel like it was normal.

“I was constantly dismissed – not just once or twice, this was multiple times. I started to feel like I was being melodramatic – that I should just be excited. When you hear again and again that it’s ‘normal’, you can start to doubt yourself.”

Less dismissive 

Lynne is now pregnant with her second child and experiencing similar feelings of anxiety. This time, she has been referred for hypnobirthing support and counselling, which she hopes will help her to manage her anxiety and lead to a more positive pregnancy.

She said: “With my first pregnancy, I feel like I wasn’t listened to at all. We need more guidelines like this and pathways in place to help new parents understand what support is out there, so that it doesn’t feel as difficult for people to speak about it. I’d hope that healthcare professionals can be less dismissive too.”

Stigma attached to both pre-natal and post-natal mental health can prevent parents like Lynne from speaking up and seeking help. Stigma can manifest itself in a number of ways, including judgement, dismissal, minimisation of symptoms or experiences, and lack of understanding from those around the expectant or new parent, including health professionals.

Self-stigma is also an issue – the research underpinning the guidelines found that many parents talk about how distress at a time when happiness is expected is perceived as a sign of weakness.

Being seen as ‘coping’ with pregnancy or new parenthood is often associated with ‘good mothering’, and those who do struggle with their mental health can feel guilty or ashamed of their symptoms or feelings, which can be a barrier to seeking support.

The stigma associated with mental illness can be exacerbated by becoming a parent, with some feeling doubly stigmatised because they feel that their capacity to be ‘a good mother’ is automatically doubted.

Improving services

The new guidance provides a framework to help practitioners improve services, and covers a range of key topics including inclusive commissioning, peer support, and workforce development and capacity. The guidelines are accompanied by a set of good practice case studies, showcasing mental health inclusive perinatal care and support in practice, as well as a list of useful resources and a literature review.

The resources have been produced as part of the Scottish Government’s commitments within the Perinatal Mental Health Peer Support Action Plan.

Mental Wellbeing Minister Maree Todd said: “See Me’s good practice guidance is a valuable piece of work that will help us achieve our commitment to addressing the stigma surrounding perinatal and infant mental health.  Good practice, shared language and shared understanding is critical to actively reducing stigma at a national level.”

Wendy Halliday, director of See Me, said: “Pregnancy, birth and beyond can be an exciting, emotional and scary time, and it’s vital that everyone is able to get the help they need if they do start to struggle. Many expectant parents wouldn’t think twice about asking for help if they had a physical problem – and it should be the same when it comes to mental health. We know, however, that stigma can cause many to hold back.

“The new resources will provide practitioners, commissioners and service providers with a really robust framework to improve services and support, and remove the barriers which stigma so often presents.”

Find out more about the resources.