A study from MBRRACE-UK, based at the University of Oxford, has found that women with severe mental health conditions are not receiving the support they need.

Pregnant woman

The report - Saving Lives, Improving Mothers' Care - looks into confidential enquiries into maternal deaths, including women with mental health conditions. Although the maternal mortality rate in the UK is falling, the rate of deaths due to 'indirect' causes, such as mental illness, has not reduced significantly.

Although severe mental illness is uncommon, it can develop quickly in women after birth, especially if they have a pre-existing mental illness like bipolar.

The study found that deaths from mental illness made up a significant proportion of maternal deaths after birth with women not receiving the specialist mental health care they need.

The report calls for increased care for women with mental health conditions, including multi-agency care to make sure women are fully supported before, during and after pregnancy. Women who report mental health changes during and after pregnancy should be referred to a mental health team as soon as possible.

Professor Ian Jones, Director at the National Centre for Mental Health and Bipolar UK Specialist Advisor, said, "It is vital that the messages are heard and the lessons are learnt - not only by specialist perinatal clinicians but mental health teams more generally, in addition to antenatal services and primary care. A number of ‘red flags’ are described which need to be recognised and responded to. The findings of the report remind us that pregnancy and childbirth are not for all women times of joy but may herald episodes of severe mental illness. We must ensure that women with mental illness in the perinatal period, where ever they live, have access to the specialist services they need.”

The report can be read in full on the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit website.

Find out more about bipolar, pregnancy and chilldbirth with our online leaflet.