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To mark International Women’s Day parliament should to enshrine a mother’s right to mental health checks into legislation

4 min read

Liberal Democrat Commons Justice spokesperson Wera Hobhouse writes ahead of #InternationalWomensDay, a year on from introducing a Bill to make upskirting a specific offence, as she introduces a Bill demanding that all mothers in the UK are given a six-week post-natal mental health check.

In our society we too often fail to talk about the reality of how giving birth will affect new mothers. Instead, we mask the impact with repeated myths and a lack of clarity as to what woman should expect.

We tell expectant mothers that this will be the happiest time of their lives and that the new child will mean the world to them. Of course, for some mothers this is true, but it is never the whole picture. We don’t tell expectant mothers about the mood swings, so severe that you can start to feel adrift from who you were before the experience of birth. We don’t tell them about how the trauma of a difficult birth can linger, impacting their day to day ability to bond with their child. And most of all we don’t tell them about the pressure they will suddenly be under – pressure to conform to every expectation and interpretation of motherhood which is flung their way. These omissions have not only shaped how we talk about birth but have also shaped our public policy – to a devastating effect.

Today, I presented my second Private Members Bill to Parliament, one year on from introducing my Bill to make upskirting a specific offence. This bill seeks to enshrine a mother’s right to mental health checks into legislation – demanding that all mothers in the UK are given a six-week post-natal mental health check.

Research from the National Childbirth Institute shows that 60% of new mothers feel unable to talk to a health professional about their emotional state. In the study conducted some said they were embarrassed, ashamed, or worried that the medical staff would think they can’t look after their own baby. Not to mention there are the 22% who were never asked about their emotional wellbeing at all.

Since 2004, the six-week baby check has been included as a mandatory requirement in the General Medical Services (GMS) contract and yet a check of the mother’s mental health and wellbeing was left out of the contract – despite the fact that this check is advised by the NICE guidelines. This contradiction has led to a post-code lottery, where some women receive a thorough mental health check and others find them rushed or completely overlooked.

The significance of the first 1,000 days of life is becoming more and more apparent. Trauma and emotional turmoil experienced in these crucial years can have a very real impact on childhood and adult life. It is vital that we ensure mothers are supported and healthy, for both their sake and future generations.

The Conservative Government has said it is committed to supporting mental health services for people across the country. However, their lack of action calls this claim very much into doubt – mental health services cannot exist in a vacuum and support must be threaded through our health service.

Centrally we must achieve parity of esteem between both mental health and physical health. The Liberal Democrats have long championed improving mental health support, including the introduction of mental health waiting times during Coalition. The wider conversation around parity of esteem argues that without mental health, the physical health of a person suffers. This is plainly obvious in the case of a mother and her new-born child.

Oversights like the failure of the GMS contract to mention maternal mental health checks fortify the existing imbalance in our society and is why I have chosen to introduce this Bill to mark International Women’s Day.

Motherhood and birth have too long been the remit of myth and common misconception. It is time we start having honest conversations with mothers about what they should expect and how they may be feeling. To allow mental health to be side-lined is a dereliction of duty of care to both new mothers and their babies.

Wera Hobhouse is the Lib Dem Spokesperson for the Environment & Climate Change & Commons Spokesperson for Justice. She is MP for Bath.

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