Experts urge better psychiatric care for new mothers
Some of the UK's top health experts have written an open letter to Simon Hamilton urging him to act to save the lives of pregnant women and new mums.
The heads of the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives in Northern Ireland have joined forces with mental health experts and politicians to call for better services for women suffering from mental health problems during pregnancy or in the period immediately after giving birth.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that does not have any inpatient psychiatric facilities for women and their babies.
The letter, published in today's Belfast Telegraph, coincides with the release of an annual report examining maternal deaths across the UK.
The MBRRACE-UK report has repeatedly flagged up suicide as a leading cause of death in pregnant women and new mums in previous years.
The letter states: "We are writing to warn of the dangers of current gaps in services in Northern Ireland for women with mental health problems during pregnancy or postnatal period.
"Research released last year revealed a staggering 80% of areas in Northern Ireland have no specialist perinatal mental health services and there is no specialist inpatient mother and baby unit in the whole of Ireland. These gaps have important implications for the wellbeing of women and their families."
Shona Hamilton, chair of regional perinatal mental health forum, explained: "At the moment, there is no mother and baby unit in Northern Ireland or Ireland.
"This means that if a woman suffers an episode after giving birth and needs inpatient care for psychiatric treatment she has to go into a general psychiatric ward and leave her baby at home.
"This impacts on the bonding process between mother and baby, can slow her recovery, and can be very stressful for her family."
A spokeswoman from the Department of Health said: "The department recognises that national guidance is that women who need inpatient care for a mental health problem within 12 months of childbirth should normally be admitted to a specialist mother and baby unit. To address these concerns, the minister has asked the Health & Social Care Board to provide proposals for the future development of specialist perinatal mental health services."