At last: the NHS acts on maternal mental health

Good news: in the next five years, NHS England will create 20 new specialist treatment centres for women who suffer from mental health problems during pregnancy or after birth.

This has been a long time coming. For years the government has promised to address the poor quality of mental health care for new mothers, and finally it’s putting its money where its mouth is. Admittedly it’s not very much money – the centres will be funded to the tune of £40m, which is unlikely to cope with the scale of the problem: an estimated one in five new mothers (about 120,000 women a year) experience mental health problems.

The majority of these women suffer from postnatal depression, but a substantial minority will have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The most conservative estimate for PTSD after childbirth is 1.5% (about 10,000 women a year in England and Wales), but researchers now think that the true figure is probably double that. PTSD can’t be cured with a pill: treatment, usually trauma-focused CBT or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) takes several weeks, and is expensive.

Having spoken to many women suffering from postnatal PTSD, I know that it can be hard to find specialist help. It’s not unusual for women to have to wait months for treatment, during which time they suffer the stress of flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety and terror. They are often frightened to leave the house and avoid contact with other new babies, making them isolated on top of everything else. All of these things have an impact on their relationship with their baby and with their partner. It’s not surprising that ­– according to the Guardian report of the NHS’s plans – perinatal mental health problems cost the UK £8.1bn a year.

So while I welcome the new centres as a step in the right direction, much more needs to be done to make sure that women with PTSD and other mental health problems receive the support they require. Even more importantly, I would love the NHS work towards preventing these mental health problems from arising in the first place. Most women with postnatal PTSD believe that it was caused, not solely by a traumatic birth, but by the feelings of helplessness and lack of control during the experience, and by the casual and sometimes even cruel attitude of healthcare professionals looking after them.

Some of this can be addressed by better recruitment and better staff training. But the NHS also needs to adopt rigorous standards of care that hold health professionals accountable: making sure that procedures aren’t carried out on women without their consent, for example, or that women are denied necessary pain relief. In a 21st century health service, in a wealthy democracy these things shouldn’t be difficult, but the stories I hear from traumatised women about poor care show we still have a very long way to go.

Maternity outcomes matter

Some good news at the Birth Trauma Association (BTA): my colleague Maureen Treadwell is leading a collaborative project called Maternity Outcomes Matter, or MOM. The idea is to reduce the incidence of stillbirth and neonatal death (both very high in this country), and also, importantly, to reduce the number of maternal injuries – a more neglected area. Several other maternity groups are involved, and we’re delighted that James Titcombe, whose baby son Joshua died as the result of a simple but catastrophic error at Furness General Hospital, has joined the group. With the help of an initial grant of £5,000, the project will produce a report to identify some of the key mistakes that are made in labour and birth and how they can be prevented in future.

It’s a small project, but an important one. One of the things the NHS lacks is a straightforward, simple way of sharing good practice and knowledge. Mistakes are often covered up (sometimes for understandable reasons) rather than shared so that lessons can be learnt. Medical practice isn’t always based on good evidence. Among members of the BTA’s Facebook group, we hear story after story of women experiencing unnecessarily traumatic births.

Recently, as part of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ campaign to reduce third- and fourth-degree tearing in childbirth, I’ve been in touch with women whose lives have been ruined by severe tearing that has left them in severe pain and in some cases incontinent. Some injuries are so severe that they have left the woman unable to work.

In 2016, this shouldn’t be happening. So this project represents is one step on the road to making childbirth safer for both women and their babies.

To find out more, contact enquiries@ birthtraumaassociation.org.uk.

Can having an epidural in labour reduce the risk of postnatal depression?

Research has found that women who receive an epidural in labour may be less likely to experience postnatal depression. The study, by Grace Lim of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, looked at the medical records of 201 women who had an epidural and had their pain assessed on a 0 to 10 scale during labour.

They calculated the percentage improvement in pain (PIP) throughout labour after a woman had an epidural. The researchers then looked at depression risk using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) six weeks after birth. They found the higher the PIP scores, the lower the EPDS scores.

We have to be cautious about how we interpret the results. It was a small study, which hasn’t yet been published (the news story was based on a conference paper). We can’t be sure about the causal relationship. And we know that in France, where epidurals are common, PND rates are roughly the same as in the UK.

But it wouldn’t be completely surprising to find a causal relationship. One national 2014 survey found that only 63% of women received the pain relief they wanted during labour. Anecdotally, I’ve heard plenty of stories of women being denied epidurals on the grounds that it was too early in labour or too late, or that there was no anaesthetist available.

The truth is that for some women labour is agonizingly painful, and it would be strange if being left in extreme pain for hours didn’t have a psychological impact. Certainly some women with postnatal PTSD talk about the denial of pain relief as a contributing factor to their PTSD. One woman I spoke to for my book was told by her husband that during the hours of being denied an epidural, she threatened to throw herself out of the hospital window. (This is a memory that she had, perhaps fortunately, blocked out.)

Epidurals carry risks, so sometimes health professionals can be reluctant to let women have them when they ask for them. But not giving an asked-for epidural can also carry risks – something that is all too easily forgotten.

It’s time we talked about perineal trauma

Today’s Victoria Derbyshire programme had an excellent film about perineal injuries during childbirth. You can read the associated article and see the film here (it’s about 15 minutes long). Four women shared their experience of having third or fourth degree tears during childbirth, resulting for some of them in urinary or bowel incontinence.

One of the striking facts in the film was that between 2000 and 2012, the rate of severe tearing during vaginal delivery increased from 2% to 6%. Although the programme was careful to state that this was “very rare”, in practice this translates into about 30,000 women a year. This huge increase in the rate, an obstetrician told the programme, was down to three main factors: the older age at which women have their first baby; an increase in the size of babies being born; and women themselves being bigger and heavier. But this isn’t necessarily the full explanation: the increase may simply be down to better recognition of tears as a result of the implementation of standard classification.

The programme also read out text messages from viewers. What was sad was the clear variability in treatment available. Although some women said their injuries had healed, others said they had been fobbed off when they complained about their perineal injuries, or that the injuries had persisted over months and years. One of those interviewed on the programme was effectively told that it was all in her head.

The good news is that the professionals are now taking this seriously: the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) have developed an intervention package to reduce tearing in childbirth. The package is really just a simple change to the recommended way in which midwives deliver the baby, which has been shown to reduce tearing. It is being piloted in a number of hospitals and will eventually be rolled out throughout England.

Nonetheless, it’s shocking that in this day and age that a problem affecting so many women isn’t talked about or even taken particularly seriously. It was clear from the programme that many doctors aren’t adequately trained to deal with perineal tears. That – as well as better care during delivery – needs to change.

A new mental health toolkit for pregnant women and new mothers

Some good news: the Royal College of General Practitioners has launched a perinatal mental health toolkit – in layperson’s terms, resources that help doctors and nurses in primary care support women who experience mental health problems during pregnancy or after giving birth.

The resources are very comprehensive, and include links to NICE guidance, links to advice on medication for pregnant and breastfeeding women and links to relevant charities and support groups such as Sands (the stillbirth and neonatal death charity) and the Birth Trauma Association.

It’s particularly good to see the RCGP recognise that mental health problems don’t exist in a vacuum. The resources include links to information about sexual violence and domestic abuse and to information about supporting refugee women.

The GP is often the first port-of-call for new mothers suffering from mental health problems such as depression and PTSD, so it’s essential that GPs have access to information about these conditions. While new mothers are now routinely screened for postnatal depression, PTSD often goes under the radar. This toolkit is, I hope, an important step towards making sure that mothers suffering from PTSD receive the treatment they need.

What should the RCOG advise women about risk?

The Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (RCOG) is to consider giving pregnant women advice about the relative risks of vaginal births and caesarean sections, according to the New Scientist.

The magazine reports that the RCOG has been prompted to look at the issue by a 2015 UK Supreme court ruling awarding damages for a baby who sustained brain damage during a vaginal delivery. The report continues:

“The plaintiff had a higher than usual risk of having a difficult birth, due to having a small pelvis and diabetes. But doctors didn’t inform her of these increased risks – an act of ‘medical paternalism’, said the presiding judge, who decided in the mother’s favour.”

A decision by the RCOG to warn women of the risks of vaginal birth will be controversial, because vaginal birth is the default option – this is how babies are supposed to be born. When it goes well, a vaginal birth is much easier for a woman to recover from than a caesarean. It seems to be better for the baby too (though the evidence isn’t completely clear-cut).

But of course, not all vaginal births go well and, as the article states, the risks of injury to a woman’s pelvic floor muscles increase as she gets older. Many women are now having first babies in their 30s and 40s, making them more susceptible to injury than younger women. The article points out that older women are also more likely to need emergency caesareans, which carry higher risks than planned caesareans.

The big problem is that decisions to do with birth are not black-and-white: they’re all about assessing relative risk. Some older women have straightforward, uncomplicated vaginal births. Some younger women require emergency caesareans or have difficult forceps deliveries.

In an ideal world, health professionals would be able to assess factors such as a woman’s age, general health, pelvic size and position of baby and advise her of the most sensible course of action accordingly. Until someone collects and analyses the data, however, we can’t confidently predict what combination of risk factors mean that a woman will find it difficult to give birth vaginally.

When women talk about their experience of birth trauma, some report being coerced into having a caesarean (usually an emergency caesarean) when they wanted to continue trying for a vaginal birth, while others who wanted a caesarean have been forced against their will to attempt – or continue attempting – a vaginal delivery. Both are traumatic, and both can result in physical and mental health problems. The worry is that sometimes the advice given to women is driven not necessarily by what’s best for them and their baby but by targets, ideology or a desire to save money.

So where does this leave the RCOG? My view is that they should make women aware of the likely risks both of planned caesarean and of vaginal birth (and also that the risks of attempted vaginal birth include an emergency caesarean). Women should be allowed the opportunity to make decisions based on the best available evidence.

Caesarean sections – a feminist issue?

A Canadian doctor has provocatively argued that women should be able to choose to deliver their babies by planned caesarean section. (Normally women are only offered a planned section if they have particular obstetric problems that would make it dangerous to deliver vaginally.)

Dr Magnus Murphy treats pelvic floor dysfunction – bladder and bowel problems often caused by a vaginal delivery. He is quoted as saying: “There are a lot of women who do feel that the feminist movement has dropped the ball on this.” Murphy adds that the feminist movement has allied itself to the movement for natural childbirth, abandoning women who might want a caesarean section.

Is he right? Well, last month the outspoken Australian obstetrician Hans Peter Dietz presented research at the International Continence Society in Montreal showing that “between 20 and 30 per cent of first-time mothers having a vaginal birth will suffer severe and often permanent damage to their pelvic floor and anal sphincter muscles”.

Dietz notes that in New South Wales, the rate of forceps birth has doubled in 10 years as the result of attempts to reduce the caesarean rate – with the result that women experience much more physical damage.

His colleague Elizabeth Skinner interviewed women who had suffered traumatic vaginal deliveries and found that two-thirds suffered PTSD symptoms. She, like Murphy, believes that feminists need a change of heart: “Previously feminists fought to return control to women giving birth. This is still true but the new 21st Century feminist issue is ensuring that women are correctly assessed for their risk of complications and given full and frank information to prevent such injuries.”

For a very long time, women in the 20th century fought to regain control of childbirth from the medical profession. Childbirth was as a medical process in which doctors were in complete charge: instead of being allowed to give birth naturally, to walk about, to squat, to give birth in their own time, women were strapped to delivery tables with legs in stirrups forced to have episiotomies and epidurals, hooked up to monitors, passively waiting for their baby to be delivered by an obstetrician. Feminists did an important job in rescuing childbirth, in making sure that women could give birth unfettered, undrugged and free to move about as they wish. It has, for many women, been an empowering experience.

And yet, could Murphy and Dietz be right? Babies are getting bigger, and for some women childbirth is a long, arduous and painful experience. Having to deliver a baby in a way that permanently damages your pelvic floor and may even leave you incontinent doesn’t seem like such a great victory for feminism. Neither does it seem particularly “natural” or “normal”, epithets that are often applied to the process of vaginal birth.

When you’ve fought to take control of birth back from the medical profession, caesarean sections, which put the process entirely in the hands of surgeons, can feel like a retrograde step. And yet if it is a choice freely made by a woman who doesn’t want to risk long-term injury and incontinence, isn’t that a choice that feminists should be fighting for?