UP to 20 per cent of women develop a mental illness during pregnancy or within the first year after giving birth.

With about 1,600 women giving birth in the Cumberland Infirmary’s maternity unit each year, it is likely that the number battling maternal mental health issues in Carlisle and the surrounding area is in the hundreds.

This is what Carlisle-based charity The Happy Mums Foundation has been working to address for the past three years.

Now, they have launched weekly drop-in sessions in Carlisle, Wigton and Brampton to help connect mothers facing similar struggles with their mental health.

Founder and Chief Executive of the Foundation, Katherine Dalgleish, explained how important peer support is to new mums struggling with mental health issues.

"We found that with the support groups that we run for maternal mental health," she said.

"To come into a support group where we do talk about a lot of quite deep, significant things, that can be quite a scary prospect for a lot of women.

"Particularly if this is not something you’ve experienced before and this is your first time that you’ve had any problems with mental health.

And if you’re feeling particularly anxious anyway, then it’s only going to make that worse," Katherine continued.

Katherine explained that the drop-in sessions, which are held between 1pm and 3pm on a Monday afternoon, can be that all-important gentle introduction to the sometimes daunting world of mental health treatment.

"The drop-ins are designed to be a bit more of a stepping stone towards getting further support.

"Myself and my colleague Amy, we’re trained support group facilitators," Katherine added.

"We just kind of are there to have a chat, explain a bit about what we offer at Happy Mums, explain why peer support is really beneficial when you’re experiencing maternal mental health problems.

"Just get a cup of tea, and just get introduced gently to the service."

The drop-in sessions are open to anyone who might benefit from the tailored support Katherine and her colleagues can offer.

"It’s just for any mum and anyone they want to bring with them – so that could be partner, their own mum, sister, friend, or a health professional that they’re working with.

"They can just come along and we’re there for two hours, and they can bring their little one with them, we’ve got our creche manager with us who comes and just sets up a little play area. And they can just come and find out a little bit about what we offer," Katherine added.

The Happy Mums Foundation is there to support the widest possible range of mental health issues faced by new mothers and mothers of young children.

"We address the whole range, the whole spectrum of maternal mental health problems. So anxiety, OCD, PTSD, depression and post-partum psychosis as well. Kind of the whole range.

"And we work with women from conception, through their pregnancy, up to two years after the baby’s born," Katherine said.

A formal diagnosis of a mental health issue is not required to make use of the peer-led service that the Happy Mums Foundation provide.

"We provide an environment where they can come and share their experiences. So we’re very clear that we don’t diagnose people, we don’t treat people," Katherine said.

One of the prime benefits of this peer-led support, according to Katherine, is that it helps those battling mental health issues break down the isolation that often comes with these issues.

"We do offer them the opportunity to kind of reduce some of that isolation, which is a big factor in mental health," Katherine said.

"Especially for new mums, it might be hard for them to get out of the house with quite a small baby. If it’s their first child it can be quite daunting to break into playgroups and things like that.

"So we offer something hopefully a bit more community based. A bit more accessible. Because we’re just other mums," she said.

For Katherine, who herself has suffered in the past from post-natal depression, it is important that others in similar situations know that they are not alone.

"The key words that we always use when talk about why peer support works is hope and acceptance," she said.

"So, with the best will in the world a health visitor, or a GP who hasn’t experienced this themselves - they can offer treatment, they can offer advice.

"But what they can’t say is ‘I know how that feels, and I’ve been there and I’ve recovered, look at me.’

"And that’s what we can offer. We’ve all been through it, we’ve all had something like post-natal depression or post-partum psychosis. And we can say, you know, yeah I know how it feels to be where you are right now, in that really dark place."

Katherine continued:

"I can say, 'here’s some ideas of how I helped myself recover. Perhaps you could try those.' And you know, I did recover. And now I’m in a better place.

The isolation that can come with mental health struggles is one of the hardest things to overcome, Katherine says.

"Your thoughts can tell you that you’re the only person that’s ever felt this bad, but hearing that other people are out there and can understand and sympathise with that, and won’t judge you for it as well."

The Happy Mums Foundation maintains a strict code of non-judgement.

"We’re very clear that it’s a non-judgmental place," Katherine said.

"Anybody can come and you can say things that you perhaps wouldn’t say when you’re trying to put on a good face, at a playgroup or something.

"But you can come here and you can be honest. And that can really help to get it off your chest."