Mental health issues in pregnant women linked to baby health
Almost one in five pregnant women in Northern Ireland reported having a mental health disorder linked to poor health outcomes for babies, according to major new research.
The Northern Ireland Maternity System study, carried out by academics at Queen's University, Belfast, found that mothers with a history of mental illness - including depression - were more likely to give birth prematurely and deliver underweight babies.
It also found that APGAR scores, a test which midwives use to measure the health and wellbeing of a baby, were lower if the mother had a history of mental health problems.
Dr Ciaran Mulholland, Clinical Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry at QUB, said the results are of international significance and cannot be ignored by politicians and health professionals.
"We now have absolute clarity about something we suspected for a long time and it is clear we are facing a massive problem," he said.
"Premature birth and low birth weight are two key factors in determining how a baby will develop and is often detrimental.
"Their life chances are being diminished and we are doing nothing to address it."
The new study, conducted in collaboration with clinicians and the Health and Social Care Trust NI's Honest Broker Service, analysed data from 142,000 expecting mothers in Northern Ireland between 2010 to 2015.
Dr Mulholland criticised the fact that only four of the five health trusts here offer specialist perinatal mental health services and said the lack of a specialist unit in the whole of Ireland is unacceptable.
"There is only a very limited service in Belfast - we need a standardised regional service and perhaps an all-Ireland provision," he said.
"There is widespread agreement among health professionals and politicians and yet nothing has been done to address it."
The study also revealed that there were 3.7 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies in Northern Ireland as a direct result of mental health issues between 2009 and 2013.
The deaths occurred during pregnancy or within the first year of birth, with 101 maternal deaths by suicide in the period.
Dr Janine Lynch, a consultant psychiatrist at the Health and Social Care Trust NI, helped conduct the research and said major investment in services should now be made a priority.
"By addressing the urgent need for investment in the provision of specialist maternal mental health care, lives and costs will be saved," she said.
The study states that the current long-term cost of dealing with perinatal depression, anxiety and psychosis is estimated to be around £8.1bn for each one-year cohort of births in the UK.