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Mental Health

Ireland's first mother and baby mental health unit due to be developed by late 2024

Ireland currently has no facility like this for women experiencing severe mental health difficulties during pregnancy or after birth.

IRELAND’S FIRST MOTHER and baby mental health unit is slated for completion by the end of 2024.

This is the first time since it was recommended almost five years ago that a more specific date has been given for its development.

The specialist in-patient unit, the first of its kind on the island, is said to be the “only piece left” to complete the government’s perinatal mental health care model. 

The facility will be used to accommodate women experiencing severe mental health difficulties during pregnancy or after the birth of their child.

Currently, women in these situations are admitted to a general psychiatric ward where they are not able to remain with their babies. 

In the new specialist unit, mothers would be able to stay with their babies, usually in the same room, during their time there.

The mother and baby unit should be in place by the final quarter of 2024, according to the government’s recent implementation plan for Ireland’s mental health policy.

The Women’s Health Action plan for 2022 and 2023 also said there will be a focus on progressing the unit.

Dr Amir Niazi, the HSE National Clinical Advisor and Group Lead for Mental Health, said the unit is “definitely not in our plan for 2022″ because of some obstacles.

He said the main hurdle standing in the way of plans progressing at the moment is choosing one of two sites where it will be located in St Vincent’s University Hospital in south Dublin.

“Once we have the site, once the [HSE] estates department agrees on the construction of it then we will focus on the funding for the recruitment of staff and all of those things,” Dr Niazi told The Journal

So if you look at the whole jigsaw, the only piece left in the model of care is the mother and baby unit.

“We knew that it was not a plan for this year, it will be a three to five years’ plan.”

The government’s 2017 Specialist Perinatal Mental Health Services model of care for Ireland recommended that one mother and baby unit should be developed in Dublin.

There are more than 20 units like this in Britain, according to the Maternal Mental Health Alliance charity, but there are none in Northern Ireland. 

Perinatal refers to any time from conception up to around a year after birth. 

‘Unacceptable’

Speaking in the Dáil on 31 March, Sinn Féin TD Mark Ward said it is “unacceptable” that there is no specialist mother and baby mental health unit on the island of Ireland.

Dr Krysia Lynch, chair of the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services – Ireland (AIMS), welcomed that a date has been set for when the unit should be in place. 

“Our preference would have been that there wasn’t just one unit, but that there were several regional units because one unit in this instance is very difficult for a family from Donegal when there are other children involved,” Dr Lynch told The Journal

Given the fact that the process was initiated and the specialist perinatal mental health strategy was launched in 2017, ideally that process will be accelerated because there have been many, many mothers who have found themselves in difficult perinatal mental health circumstances since 2017, and it’s still a long way to go until 2024.

Dr Lynch was a member of the working group involved in developing the 2017 care model. 

She said that new mothers and pregnant people often question why Ireland does not already have a facility like this. 

“Birthing during the pandemic has had a huge impact on the perinatal mental health and wellbeing of mothers, babies and their families,” she said.

So whatever the need that was identified five years ago, that need has increased substantially since then.

The perinatal mental health model of care estimated that in 2016, 40-60 women would potentially have benefitted from admission to a mother and baby unit. 

“A six-bedded mother and baby unit could accommodate at least 60 admissions per year with a mean length stay of five weeks per woman,” the report said. 

more recent HSE document on this unit said the average stay would be eight weeks, with some people staying for a couple of weeks and some for a few months. 

The unit would have six beds with the capacity to expand to ten if needed.

Dr Lynch said: “So it’s a huge issue for us in Ireland, and I think it needs a speedy resolution.” 

The “crucial next step” to improve Ireland’s specialist perinatal mental health services is developing the inpatient unit, Minister of State for Mental Health Mary Butler said last month. 

Dr Niazi said HSE officials “certainly” want the unit in place ”so that we can say that the model of care for our perinatal programme is fully in place because this is the only piece left and this is a gap in our service delivery”. 

“Certainly I think the last two years because of Covid I think some of our plans were derailed and we couldn’t keep them on track, but this is a key priority in our model of care for the perinatal programme.”

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