Released on: 06 February 2020

NCT (National Childbirth Trust) in conjunction with City, University of London has found that mothers with emotional difficulties who accessed peer support showed significant improvements in their mental health and wellbeing.

Mums taking part in a peer-support project run by NCT - the UK’s largest parenting charity - showed a statistically significant reduction in anxiety and depression scores and reported feeling less isolated.

NCT’s Parents in Mind peer support programme is for women who experience or who are at risk of developing mild to moderate mental illness during pregnancy or within the first two years after giving birth. Women in need of support can be referred by a health professional (e.g. midwife, GP, health visitor), or they can self-refer to the service. Mums who have experienced similar mental health issues are trained to assist by offering a listening ear, giving emotional support and by signposting women to other community services. 

So far nearly 200 new and expectant mothers have been supported by 77 volunteer mums in three areas of the UK.

An external evaluation of the project has been carried out by Jenny McLeish and Professor Susan Ayers from City, University of London. It shows a statistically significant reduction in anxiety and depression scores using the validated Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS). Anxiety scores reduced from 13.07 to 10.53 (-2.53) and depression scores reduced from 8.8 to 6.29 (-2.5).

Average anxiety scores reduced from clinically significant to mild and average depression scores reduced from mild to normal. Two thirds of mothers had lower anxiety and depression scores after peer support, with many mothers explicitly stating they believed peer support itself was responsible for their improved mood.

The study also found that of the women supported:

  • 86% felt the programme helped them feel less isolated and alone
  • 86% felt it helped them to know where to get help if they needed it
  • 86% felt it provided someone they could talk to who understood them
  • 74% felt it helped them to feel more hopeful about the future

Lauren Fox, a mum who was supported by a Parents in Mind volunteer, said:

“Finding other mothers who felt how I felt was a huge relief. Peer support made what I was going through seem a lot more normal. It stopped me from feeling ashamed, as though I had to hide it.”

Dr Agnes Hann, research manager, at NCT, said:

“We’ve seen that parent-to-parent support during pregnancy and in early parenthood has the potential to improve mental health and wellbeing, reduce loneliness and isolation and increase use of local services. NCT has a long history of bringing expectant and new parents together to form supportive relationships and we’re so pleased to be expanding our services to support more families.”

Professor Susan Ayers from City, University of London said:

“Our evaluation shows that peer support can help mothers with mental health difficulties in ways that are different from professional support, and many mothers found peer support to be effective in improving their mental health. Lots of learning came out of the evaluation including the importance of understanding the local context, for example cultural factors and transport links.”

NCT runs another peer support scheme, the Birth and Beyond Community Supporters programme, which has so far supported 256 mothers. The project helps women and families who are vulnerable or from communities that experience poverty, social exclusion and social disadvantage including homelessness, domestic violence, sexual abuse or those with refugee or asylum-seeking status.

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