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Perinatal anxiety: research finds lack of support for women

Around 15-25% of women experience significant levels of anxiety in the perinatal period (pregnancy and a year after childbirth). Despite being treatable, most women experiencing perinatal anxiety (PNA) don’t seek help.

“There is so much pressure to be the ‘perfect mother’ these days, and there are a lot of unrealistic expectations around motherhood, so when women struggle to meet them, they can often think that they are failing somehow, or worry that they may be seen as a ‘bad mother’.”  – Dr Gini Harrison

Lack of support for women

New research (published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research) suggests this might be due to the lack of reliable information and supportive resources that are available for PNA. 

Dr Donna Moore and Dr Gini Harrison from The Open University examined 50 websites available for PNA and found that the information provided by them is often inaccurate, confusing and incomplete.  Most websites focus on symptoms rather than risk factors, and many don’t give information on screening for PNA.  The majority of sites often confused (or mixed together) symptoms of perinatal anxiety with postnatal depression, which the report says could be “misleading at best and at worst prevent women from seeking the help they need”.  And although most sites provide information on treatment, few offer therapeutic support themselves.

Lack of knowledge of perinatal mental health

Dr Harrison said: “There’s mass awareness about postnatal depression, but knowledge about other aspects of perinatal mental health is really lacking.  Perinatal anxiety can have significant negative consequences such as low birth weight, bonding issues and developmental problems in children. 

“When women struggle to meet the unrealistic expectations around motherhood, they think they are failing. This simply isn’t true, but it means these women are less likely to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental health issues in this period. Obviously a bit of worry is normal in pregnancy and motherhood, but the more distressing or persistent symptoms that PNA brings need recognition by healthcare professionals, and support needs to be put in place for these mothers.”

Better UK based support needed

As part of their review, Dr Moore and Dr Harrison identified the top four websites available in terms of information, support, resources and website quality; they are:

However, of these, only one – – made the clear distinction between perinatal anxiety and perinatal depression, and so the others make it difficult for women experiencing anxiety without depression to relate to their materials.  If women are unable to identify with the description of symptoms, they are unlikely to recognise the problem and therefore seek help.  It’s also worth noting that only one of these sites is based in the UK, and therefore the resources and support services available on the other three are unlikely to be as relevant and local. There is therefore a need for websites to present PNA-specific information in a way that is accurate and accessible, and to offer better UK-based support.

About Author

Kath works in the Media Relations team within the Communications Unit at The Open University. She is a skilled communicator with more than 15 years’ experience working in both the public and private sectors. She has a BA (Hons) English and American Literature from University of Warwick and specialises in stories from the Faculty of Social Science, Faculty of Education and Language Studies, BBC programmes, and student stories. In her spare time Kath enjoys touring the country in her hand-painted camper van, Trevor.

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