“Asking for help is not a sign of failure”
Kate Pinney explains how Tommy’s supports women’s mental health during and after pregnancy
“People are often reluctant to open up about the problems they are facing so it’s important to look out for the signs”
“Babies who are born to parents who suffer from anxiety and depression are more likely to have a mental health condition themselves further down the line”
Recent statistics suggest that mental illness affects one in five women during pregnancy and for Kate Pinney, a practising midwife and the manager of the midwifery team for the charity Tommy’s, looking out for signs of mental distress is a regular part of her job. “Pregnancy can be an amazing time, but it can also be quite daunting,” she explains.
“Becoming a parent is a time of massive change, and women often don’t know what to expect or how to feel. There are many hormonal changes during this time, and a variety of situations can affect mental health too, such as stresses over housing and finances or isolation, so it is really common for there to be changes in emotional well-being.
“There could also be difficult circumstances surrounding the pregnancy, such as if someone has been abused, is dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, or has formerly had a miscarriage or stillbirth. Those who have had a negative relationship with their own parents may also experience challenging thoughts and feelings, and those with a pre-existing mental health condition could find this is exacerbated during pregnancy.
“However, people are often reluctant to open up about the problems they are facing so it’s important to look out for the signs.”
Mental health problems are also common after pregnancy. “Mental illness is actually more common post-natally and can occur any time during the first year of motherhood,” says Kate.
“I’m currently seeing a mother of a four-month-old who felt fine for the first few weeks after the baby was born, but very gradually, she found herself deteriorating. Her temper became quite short and she was snappy, irritable and tearful. She also found it distressing when her baby was crying. It was her partner who really noticed the changes in her as it was starting to impact on their relationship, but it took a long time until she was able to ask for any support as she placed a lot of pressure on herself to be this perfect parent. She saw asking for help as a sign she wasn’t coping and a reflection of her parenting ability, which is unfortunately quite common.”
Kate, who has worked with Tommy’s for four years, heads up a team of midwives who run a support line to help in situations such as this. “The main function of the charity is to support and fund research into reducing stillbirth, premature birth and miscarriage, but we’re also here to support people emotionally. Often, women experience anxieties they don’t feel they can talk to their regular midwife or GP about – or really discuss with anyone face to face – so we help to answer any questions and also give them the confidence to go off and get the support they need.”
To support further women’s mental health during and after pregnancy, Tommy’s is using the money raised in The Candis Big Give to develop and promote a digital version of its NICE-approved Pregnancy and Post-birth Wellbeing Plan, which is a tool to improve self-management of mental health and is supported through its team of midwives. “The paper-based version of this plan was created around five years ago through a collaboration of many organisations, women and midwives and has been really successful, but we realised a digital tool that anyone could download would mean more people could get hold of it and use it.
“The plan includes information about signs and symptoms to look out for –including changes in appetite, feeling tearful, having racing thoughts, a lack of interest in engaging with people, irritability and – at the extreme end of the scale – obtrusive or suicidal thoughts.”
The digital version also includes tips for self-management of symptoms. “Whenever we talk to someone who is possibly experiencing anxiety or depression, as well as making sure they’re getting the professional help and support they need we also go back to basics and check they are eating healthily and exercising – which we know for mild depression is just as effective as antidepressants. It’s empowering people with the tools to be able to help their own emotional well-being while they’re waiting for professional support.”
Kate hopes this plan will help to normalise discussions surrounding mental health. “It is so important people are able to talk about their emotional well-being, as mental health affects so many people and can be extremely serious. We know that antenatal anxiety and depression can affect the baby as well as the mum, as cortisol is passed through the placenta and can affect the baby’s growth, and babies who are born to parents who suffer from anxiety and depression are also more likely to have a mental health condition themselves further down the line. Although less common, women can also suffer from conditions such as perinatal OCD and even psychosis, which can be fatal.
“Given the huge impact of mental health on everyone affected, it’s important we get conversations going, and I believe our digital tool will help with this. It gives a space for people to write down the feelings they are bottling up and gives them something to show to others to help to break the ice and facilitate conversation. Just having someone to talk to is so important, and for a lot of people can make all the difference.”
- Tommy’s is the largest charity funding research into the causes of miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth
- Tommy’s is aiming to halve the number of babies who die during pregnancy or birth by 2030
- It offers a pregnancy information website and midwife-led Facebook page and an app for parents of premature babies
The Candis Big Give project: Improving mental health during pregnancy
FUNDRAISING TARGET: £90,000
- Developed over five years, Tommy’s Pregnancy and Post-birth Wellbeing Plan was created through a collaboration of many organisations and supported by the charity’s team of midwives. Now approved by NICE, the paper plan includes information about signs and symptoms of common mental health conditions for women to look out for, space to write about their feelings, and tips for self-management of symptoms.
- Tommy’s will use the money raised in The Candis Big Give Christmas Challenge to develop and promote a digital version of this plan, so it can reach more women at risk of mental illness, which currently affects one in five women during pregnancy. Visit tommys.org for more information.