Parents of babies in neonatal care failing to receive mental health support

Survey finds 62% of parents have no access to mental health support when babies are receiving neonatal care


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Parents of babies who need neonatal care are not getting the support they need for mental and emotional trauma, research by a charity for babies born premature or sick has found.

In a survey by Bliss, a charity for babies born sick or prematurely, 80% of respondents said their mental health suffered as a result of their experience on neonatal units.

Lack of psychological support

Only 8% felt they had received the right amount of psychological support, while 62% said no support of any kind was available to them.

The survey has been welcomed by some nurses, but they doubt it will lead to more specialist staff being recruited.

Bliss, which carried out its research between 7 June and 2 July, receiving responses from 589 parents, also found:

  • 23% of respondents had been diagnosed with anxiety
  • 16% had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 14% had postnatal depression
  • 39% felt that despite not being officially diagnosed, they had developed a mental health condition.

Little progress

Standards for neonatal care set by the British Association of Perinatal Medicine say there should be access to psychological and social support, including a trained counsellor.

Bliss says the survey shows little progress has been made since its previous research that showed:

  • In England in 2015 there was no access to trained mental health workers for parents at 41% of neonatal units.
  • In Wales in 2016, 45% of units did not offer psychological support while none of the country’s three intensive care units employed dedicated mental health workers.
  • In Scotland in 2017, although 12 out of 13 units could provide access to trained mental health professionals for parents, they often failed to meet demand.

Dedicated access to vital support

In the Northern Ireland Baby Report 2018, published in February, Bliss and premature baby charity TinyLife said five of the country’s seven neonatal units do not have dedicated access to mental health professionals.

Neonatal specialist sister Amy Overend, a non-executive director of Bliss, played no part in the survey but ‘agrees 100% with its findings’.

She said: ‘Nurses know how vital it is to support parents at such a traumatic time, but with no dedicated services in place it falls to us to try and provide it alongside caring for the seriously ill babies.

‘I’m often asked by parents who they can talk to about what they are going through, and I feel awful saying they’ll have to go to their GP since nothing is available on site.’

Lack of money 

Ms Overend believes every neonatal unit in the UK needs a permanent multidisciplinary service in place, featuring ‘at least one clinical psychologist or a specialist mental health nurse’.

‘Inevitably it comes down to finances, or in this case the lack of them. Unless a massive injection of money is given to neonatal services nothing will improve’ she added.

Bliss is currently working on new advice for parents about mental health which will be available later this year.

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