Women have faced an increased risk of anxiety, depression, loneliness and suicidal thoughts as they navigate pregnancy and early motherhood during the pandemic, a review of evidence has found.
The Centre for Mental Health conducted a rapid review of evidence for the Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA), and found that women of colour and those from poorer backgrounds had been particularly affected.
According to the review, the pandemic has created a mental health crisis for many new or expectant mothers, which is likely to have long-term consequences.
Women have faced increased pressures, with fears about giving birth alone without partners, of losing their job, and of they or their baby catching Covid-19.
Access to services reduced for pregnant women and new mothers, particularly at the start of the pandemic, it said.
At the same time, informal networks have been curtailed, with those struggling less able to lean on their friends, relatives and other mothers.
The MMHA, a network of over 100 national organisations, is calling on the Government to address gaps in perinatal services and protect and improve the wider system for new and expectant mothers.
Luciana Berger MMHA chairwoman, said: “Today’s report should serve as an ear-splitting warning siren about the dangers to women’s maternal mental health and potential risks to the wellbeing of their babies.
“The pandemic has placed additional challenges on new and expectant mums getting the care and support they need, taking many already stretched services to the point of breaking.
“Women of colour and women from disadvantaged backgrounds have been particularly impacted, and ministers must address this injustice with urgency.”
Sarah Hughes, chief executive of Centre for Mental Health, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has been a mental health challenge across society, but it has not affected everyone equally.
“It has placed especial pressure on women during pregnancy and after they’ve given birth. And it has made inequalities that were always there in plain sight even more pronounced.
“We need to take this opportunity to review and reframe what support women should expect for their mental health during the perinatal period, and to make sure that we prepare for any future crisis to avoid another loss of support at a crucial time in people’s lives.’
The review also found evidence that babies born during the pandemic have experienced far less socialisation than they would normally.
Young children have also shown more clinginess, introversion and greater alarm at strangers.
It said it was not clear what the long-term impact on children born during the pandemic could be.
Vicky Nevin, senior policy and public affairs officer at the NSPCC said: “This report echoes our concerns that a lack of support for mental health problems during and after pregnancy can have serious consequences for parents, children and their families.
“Access to support during the crucial perinatal period has long been inconsistent, but the pandemic has now thrown up even bigger challenges – particularly for parents raising babies in the UK’s most deprived communities.
“That’s why our Fight for a Fair Start campaign is calling for parents and babies to be included in the Government’s recovery plans, which means rebuilding the health visiting workforce to help identify perinatal mental health problems and resourcing community-based services that support parents to bond with their child.”
Minister for mental health and maternity safety Nadine Dorries said she was “acutely aware” of the challenges new and expectant mothers had faced over the last year and “committed to ensuring support is there for those who need it”.
“Throughout the pandemic, mental health has remained a priority and services, including specialist perinatal mental health services, which now exist in every area of England have remained open, often adapting to provide digital and remote support.
“We have also given over £10 million in funding to national and local mental health charities to support those affected.
“From April 2020, there has also been a requirement for GPs to offer a six to eight-week maternal postnatal health check, including a review of the mother’s wellbeing for new mothers as an additional appointment to that for the baby.”
An NHS spokeswoman said “it is vital that people continue to come forward for help if they need it”, adding that GPs and midwives can refer people to specialist help, as well as to NHS crisis helplines.