Every health visiting team should include a specialist in mental health to support new parents, according to new official guidance.
The guidance for healthcare commissioners, published by Health Education England, calls for the creation of new specialist health visitor posts in perinatal and infant mental health across the country, as part of efforts to end a “postcode lottery of care”.
“Commissioning at least one specialist post for a health visitor in perinatal and infant mental health within every health visiting service is a crucial step”
The document highlights the huge importance of robust mental health support for both mums and dads in the period before and after the birth of a child.
According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, more than one in 10 women experience mental health problems during pregnancy and after birth. New fathers can also experience difficulties.
Specialist health visitors can help identify and support those with problems or at risk of developing them and ensure they get further help if needed, noted the guidance.
They can also support families struggling with all-important bonding essential to the welfare of new babies.
“Health visitors would benefit from specialist support in this challenging arena”
However, the document stated there was currently “very limited provision” of this kind of support and expertise within health visiting teams.
More health visiting services now have perinatal or infant mental health “champions” who have done specialist training, however this has yet to translate into specialist posts.
“This is a missed opportunity to radically improve services by building on the enthusiasm and training of the champions model and to create a higher tier of expertise within the health visiting profession,” said the guidance.
It said health visiting teams should employ at least one specialist in perinatal and infant mental health, but larger organisations may need more than one.
Guidance author Sarah Rance, a consultant child psychotherapist and parent-infant psychotherapist, said commissioning new specialist posts was “a crucial step” in delivering proper perinatal mental healthcare.
“Having worked for many years as a trainer and colleague of health visitors who have become specialists in perinatal and infant mental health, I have seen at first hand the difference they can make to vulnerable parents and infants and to raising understanding and expertise in the wider health visiting and early years workforce,” she said.
The guidance added that specialist health visitors can “support and empower their colleagues”, as well as helping reduce demand on mainstream health visiting services.
“If health visitors without specialist training are left to support families affected by perinatal mental health problems on their own, it is less likely that families will receive the care and support they need and staff are placed under greater strain,” said the document.
Health visitors lacking time for mental health support
The new guidance for service commissioners has been warmly welcomed by the Institute of Health Visiting.
“Health visitors are well-placed to identify those families requiring additional support, especially where the mother – or indeed father – may be suffering from perinatal mental illness or where the bond between parent and baby may be compromised,” said executive director Cheryll Adams.
“However, health visitors have many other roles and responsibilities taking their time during this important period of every child’s life and they would benefit from specialist support in this challenging arena,” she said.