A brand-new specialist mental health unit to support new and expectant parents across Cheshire, Merseyside and North Wales has been announced as part of Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week (1st – 7th May).

CWP in partnership with Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board (BCHUB), NHS England and NHS Wales are working together on a proposal to transform training centre, Churton House on the Countess of Chester Health Park into a specialist eight bedded unit to support perinatal mothers, babies and their families.

The proposed unit will work alongside the existing regional Community Perinatal Mental Health Services who already care for thousands of women every year.

Sarah Hull, CWP operational lead for Perinatal Mental Health Services, says: “The time around pregnancy and the early days of parenting is such a special time, but it can also make some women vulnerable to new or relapses of existing mental health problems.

“If admission to hospital is required, previously local women have had to travel to other specialist units or face being separated from their baby, which can create further issues with bonding and attachment. For women with family and partners this can also make maintaining contact with the new baby challenging and it is particularly difficult for any siblings who are separated from their mother at the same time as accepting the new baby into their lives.”

It is estimated that one in four women experience mental health problems in pregnancy and during the 24 months after giving birth. The consequences of not accessing high-quality perinatal mental health care are estimated to cost the NHS and social care £1.2 billion per year.

The new unit will support new and expectant mothers in a therapeutic environment which has been purposefully designed for people experiencing maternal mental health difficulties, such as post-natal depression, psychosis or a relapse of an existing mental health condition.

Tim Welch, CWP chief executive, says: “This is an extremely exciting development for our local population and will greatly improve families’ experience of care at this critical time. We are really looking forward to developing the plans in partnership with local families and our clinical teams who are the experts in what outstanding care should look like.

“Our ambition is to develop a centre of excellence for perinatal mental health services that can offer specialist advice to other professionals like GPs, health visitors, social workers and midwives. By offering wider therapies and support to partners of women accessing our services, we also hope to support the 5-10% of partners who also experience mental health difficulties during the perinatal period.”

Plans include a nursery, sensory room and multiple lounges to support quiet time and family visits. Having access to outside space is central to the plans with two garden areas and a walking pram loop, with families set to benefit from being based on the edge of the Countess Country Park.

Teresa Owen, executive director responsible for BCUHB’s Mental Health and Learning Disabilities Division, said: “We’re very excited to be working with our partners in NHS England on this much needed development, which will ensure that the small number of women from North Wales who require this level of specialist support can receive their care closer to home.

“Women from North Wales who have a lived experience of perinatal mental health difficulties have played a central role in shaping these plans and we’re extremely grateful for their input. We’re also pleased that we have been able to introduce measures to ensure that the Welsh language is considered throughout.”

Dr Giles Berrisford, national specialty advisor for Perinatal Mental Health at NHS England, said: “NHS Mother and Baby Units are lifesaving, treating mothers and families affected by the most severe forms of perinatal mental illness, so I am delighted to see that more women in England and Wales will have access to these services.

“If you are a new mother or expecting a child and struggling with your mental health, you can contact your GP, midwife or healthcare worker to receive support.”

Heidi Hurst, is a peer support worker CWP Community Perinatal Team and has previously accessed the perinatal team’s support during pregnancy and after her baby was born. She explains: "This is really exciting and is going to benefit a lot of ladies and families across Cheshire, Merseyside and North Wales.

“After previously being admitted to a Mother and Baby Unit myself, I am loving being involved in the development of the new unit and helping to shape the plans by drawing on my own experiences. Ultimately it’s all about helping other women and their families recover and receive care closer to their home and support networks."

The unit is set to open in 2024.