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Explanations

Research focus: The maternal mental health experiences of young mums

Lynne Fountain

1st November 2023

Earlier this month ‘The Maternal Mental Health Experiences of Young Mums’ report was published , shining a light on the urgent needs of young mums in the UK.

Becoming a parent is challenging at any age, but many young mums face additional difficulties, which can contribute to poor mental health, these difficulties include:

  • experiences of care
  • isolation and loneliness
  • housing difficulties
  • poverty
  • employment discrimination

The report highlights how young mums are significantly more likely to experience shame, stigma, and judgement, which can put their mental health at risk and at the same time act as a considerable barrier to accessing support.

What was the research question/topic?

The report explores the maternal mental health experiences of young mums and how their needs can be centred in the planning of perinatal mental health support.

Who did the research?

The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition (CYPMHC) and the Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA) conducted the research. The focus group element of the research was supported by local organisations known to the Coalition and Alliance, who directly support young mums.

What research method(s) did they use?

A literature review explored previous research that has been conducted in relation to young mums, their mental health, and the social and economic challenges faced by this group.

Four online focus groups were held across the UK. The researchers spoke to 20 young mums, aged between 17 and 25, about their experiences of service provision and support, and listened to their views on what needs to change to better support young mums and their mental health.

Case studies were compiled to learn from best practice. They were gathered from across the UK, focused on voluntary and community sector services who provide specific, holistic support to young mothers in their local area, alongside opportunities for young mothers to connect with their peers.

This should generate rich and authentic qualitative data describing the experiences and thoughts of young mums. This makes the research findings valid. However, it must be remembered that sometimes participants in focus groups can lead each other to give certain answers, especially if there is a more vocal or confident member of the group. Another bias can occur called 'social desirability bias' which is when participants give the most socially acceptable answer or the one they think the researcher wants. This can reduce the validity of the findings.

What sampling method did they use?

For the focus groups young mums were invited to participate through local organisations they attended. These organisations include the Parent Rooms in Northern Ireland, Mums-Aid based in London, Home-Start Renfrewshire and Inverclyde in Scotland, and Ty Enfys Project in Wales. Each young person was given a £25 voucher for their participation.

This means that the participants 'self-selected' which can sometimes lead to bias in the findings. Perhaps they were keen to take part because they have had bad experiences that they need to share, or perhaps they only took part because of the financial incentive.

Why is this research important?

The Centre for Mental Health’s report for the Maternal Mental Health Alliance indicated that young parents were one of the groups most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and called for more research exploring the experiences of young mums. Whilst efforts have been focused on reducing the number of teenage pregnancies, less attention has been paid to the support needs of young mums and historically young parenthood has been framed as a problem. For too long, young mums’ needs and views have been ignored. The reality is:

  • postnatal depression is up to twice as prevalent in teenage mothers compared to those over 20
  • 1 in 4 births in England and Wales were to young people aged 16-24
  • there has been a tragic rise in teenage maternal suicides since 2018

What were the findings?

The literature review of existing evidence about young mums found that young women under 25 are at an increased risk of experiencing mental illness in the perinatal period (during pregnancy and the first years after birth) with post-natal depression twice as prevalent in teenage mothers compared to those over 20.

The evidence demonstrates that stigma is an important and influential part of the experiences of being a young mother, in some cases, young mothers may hide symptoms of postnatal depression as they can be afraid they will be judged as being unable to cope with their parenting responsibilities and fear that their child may be taken away. Research has identified young parents as a group who are more likely to feel lonely and that young mums are at an increased risk of isolation.

The focus groups with the young mums focused on two key areas; experiences of support services, and views on what needs to change to better support young mums.

As a young mum, you do feel judged a lot.

The young mothers reported accessing support from health care services such as their GP, health visitor and from mental health services, yet experiences of these were not consistently good. They described feeling judged by some services and professionals for being a young mum and that assumptions were made about them as a parent.

When asked what change they would like to see in terms of the support they receive, young mums said they want non-judgemental, accessible, and flexible services that listen to them. This included being able to have concerns about their child’s health and their own health taken seriously and being made to feel valued as a parent.

Where they received holistic support from a dedicated service for young mums, they reported positive experiences. This included feeling like they were understood and supported, and that they were provided opportunities to connect with other young people in similar situations. These services were predominantly based in the Voluntary and Community Sector and four examples of them are given in the report as case study examples of best practice.

Recommendations

The research identifies 4 priority areas for action to better support the needs of young mothers:

  1. Listen and respond to the needs of young mothers in national and local systems – for example the health and local authority commissioners should listen to their experiences and health and social care services should take a trauma-informed response when supporting young parents.
  1. Resource and invest in universal and preventative services – for example more funding for health visitors, school nurses, midwives and Family Hubs to be established across all local authority areas including specific services and information for young parents.
  1. Ensure access to specialist mental health services – for example local health bodies should ensure that both existing specialist children and young people’s mental health services and specialist perinatal mental health services receive sufficient funding and resourcing to meet the needs of young mums.
  1. Research and listen to the voices of young mums – for example health research funders such as the National Institute of Health Research should invest in research to explore what effective support for young mums can look like, based on existing services.

Help this report bring about change

  • Download and share the report with decision-makers in your locality
  • Share the report on your socials, tagging @MMHAlliance and @CYPMentalhealth
  • Use the hashtag #YoungMumsMH
  • Talk about the briefing with those in a position to make change happen.

Lynne Fountain

Lynne has taught Health and Social Care in FE and secondary schools since 2014. She has successfully led a large Social Sciences department at a girl's comprehensive school in London and she is an experienced examiner and moderator. Lynne is also a teacher of Sociology, with a first degree in Sociology and an MSc in Criminology. Prior to her teaching career, Lynne held a variety of roles for the Department of Education, the charity sector, youth justice and a large children's hospital, where she used her Post Graduate Certificate in Health Service Management to manage a forensic paediatric medical service.

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