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Health visitors can help prevent postnatal depression

A new study shows that health visitors with special training can prevent postnatal depression, but they are in short supply.
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Keith David Barnard
new mother and infant

August 18th 2010 - A new study has found that a shortage of health visitors is having an impact on postnatal depression among new mums.

The world’s first ever analysis of data from a full-scale clinical trial in adults shows that training health visitors to assess and psychologically support mothers after childbirth can prevent the development of depression over the following year.

However, the substantial reduction in the number of NHS health visitors was identified by researchers as a key adverse factor for the health and well-being of new mothers.

Extra training helps

The University of Leicester study was led by Professor Terry Brugha with researchers from the universities of Nottingham and Sheffield. It is being published in the Cambridge University Press journal Psychological Medicine.

Professor Brugha said, “Up until now, it was thought that depression could only be treated when it is picked up by a GP or health visitor. But this study shows that women are less likely to become depressed in the year after childbirth if they are attended by an NHS health visitor who has undergone additional training in specific mental health assessment and in psychological approaches based on either cognitive behavioural or listening techniques.”

“Women receiving usual care were significantly more likely to develop depression six months after childbirth.”

Huge shortage hampers more research

When the research team set out to repeat and further develop this research they were unable to make sufficient progress because in most parts of England there has been a substantial reduction in the number of health visitors funded by the NHS.

Researchers found that mothers were fortunate if they receive just one home visit from a health visitor.

Health visitors were unable to take time off to undergo the extra training in assessment of depression and psychological support approaches.

Therefore the research team at the University of Leicester are now considering undertaking further research on prevention of postnatal depression in other parts of the world.

Crucial frontline support being lost

The NHS believes one in 10 new mums suffer from postnatal depression.

Most cases of postnatal depression start within six months of the birth, but can occur any time within a year. New mothers can feel overwhelmed by hopelessness, and may feel angry, or be too exhausted to be angry or to do the simplest tasks.

The advice is that new mums should talk to their midwife, doctor or health visitor.

The World Health Organisation has predicted that depression will be a leading cause of disability due to ill health by the year 2020.

Netmums, which is the UK’s fastest-growing online parenting organisation, understands the benefits of health visitors. Their spokesman, Nicola Lamond says, “Many mums feel that when they are not coping or feeling depressed or anxious that they are left to cope alone. If we are to support families at this most important stage in their lives, then the decimation of the health visiting service must be reversed.”

Nicola continues, “Health visitors are a vital service to families. They are a crucial frontline service and the support they can provide to families should not be undervalued. If they are given the opportunity to see mums regularly in the first five years after childbirth, then they can develop strong relationships with families and are uniquely trusted. We know from our research at Netmums that many mums would be much more likely to admit that they were struggling or not coping if they could to turn to their health visitor who they knew and trusted.”

Reviewed on August 18, 2010

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