You might think a reference to one of my school chemistry lessons is an odd way to start a blog but bear with me.
It was the first and most prominent theme that came to mind as I travelled back on a packed evening train from Paddington yesterday evening. I had spent the afternoon at an event held in Westminster with over 150 people from the Perinatal Mental Health (PMH) community. They included leaders in this field from a variety of specialties – Health Visitors, Midwifes, Obstetricians, GPs, Psychologists, Psychiatrists – all working in very diverse roles but united by the same objective – to improve care for women, men and their families experiencing PMH problems.
As well as professionals, there was a large number of women, and some men, who have been personally affected and listening to some of their stories told was a maelstrom of emotions. Empathy, concern, guilt, shock and above all, compassion. But a very rich source of fuel for this particular fire to be started.
All those who speak publicly about their own personal tragedy deserve some respect but not all can make such a lasting impression as did Antoinette Sandbach, MP. She has become a passionate advocate for improved perinatal bereavement support, health professional training and hospital facilities after experiencing her own personal tragedy. She spoke with such honesty, such visible pain, that all of us came away knowing there is much work still to be done in this important area.
Cutting edge research on the economic and the biomedical arguments for the prevention, early detection and prompt treatment of PMH illness were persuasive. Dr Alain Gregoire, Prof Vivette Glover and Anna Day spoke with passion, conviction and their experienced words held everyone’s attention. Some memorable points: 10% of childhood behavioural, cognitive development and emotional difficulties may be attributable to perinatal mental health problems although this is not an inevitable consequence for the vast majority of PMH illness. And as if this wasn’t enough science to motivate us all to do more – 70% of our brain’s development happens in the first 2 years of life, the other 30% happen in utero. Tackling PMH issues really is a chance to improve not only the lives of the parent in front of us, but their children as well.
Lindsay Robinson spoke eloquently, emotionally and connected with the audience in a very powerful way. Her delayed disclosure, diagnosis and appropriate treatment for postnatal depression which followed undetected antenatal depression was heart-wrenching to hear. But equally powerful was her courage to share her story in the hope of helping others to have a better experience of early motherhood than she had. Similar motivation had prompted Sanchita Islam to share her narrative which illustrated the huge challenges and complexities of living with a chronic severe mental illness like schizophrenia.
Powerful fuel indeed.
There was also some news of policy progress from Dr Giles Berrisford, Associate National Clinical Director for Perinatal Mental Health. He outlined the current situation: only 15 % of the UK having robust perinatal services but that this postcode lottery is finally being addressed with £360 million investment coming over the next 5 years. As well as supporting the development of many specialist PMH community teams across the country, this money will also support 4 new Mother and Baby Units across England so offering many more beds than are currently available for those women with the most severe type of PMH problems.
However, there is no money pledged yet for a Mother and Baby Unit in Wales and there was a strong Welsh presence yesterday including Mark Williams who is one of the leading PMH voices in Wales raising awareness of how fathers as well as mothers may be affected. The impact and reach of his work is admirable and his story again is one that has, and will, motivate many others to come forward and seek the help they need.
As Beverley Turner outlined – the importance of words cannot be underestimated, women too often become “passengers” in their own journey when it comes to pregnancy, birth and parenting. There needs to be more discussion, more debate, more myth busting – and we all have a role to play in that dialogue.
There is a feeling of momentum in PMH at the moment with more awareness, more investment and an increasingly vocal community on social media breaking down some of the stigma of PMH illness. This together with the collective buzz of optimism and tangible sense of hope as was seen in the audience yesterday must be the oxygen to this flame. Remembering the days of starched white coats and blue Bunsen burners – to ignite a fire with fuel and oxygen, all you need is a spark.
And that bright spark was Mr Raja Gangopadhyay, an obstetrician with a special interest in PMH, who by organising #Hopedec09, has done something very wonderful indeed. He has ignited a fire in the hearts and minds of those within the PMH community to continue in their work to improve the lives of all affected by PMH problems for this generation, and beyond.