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Research findings will optimise virtual mental health support for perinatal women

Virtual support offered to people experiencing mental health conditions during pregnancy and after birth is set to improve, following research by the Perinatal Community Mental Health Service (PCMHS) at Cardiff and Vale University Health Board (UHB).

The research project, supported by Improvement Cymru, highlights optimal conditions for delivering virtual interventions supporting women with moderate to severe mental health conditions during the perinatal period.

With mental health conditions common among perinatal women, issues such as increased isolation and reduced in-person support during the COVID-19 pandemic affected mental health outcomes, which can have long-term consequences for women and their families.

In response, Cardiff and Vale UHB’s PCMHS introduced virtual interventions adapted from the individualised and group-delivered psychological interventions that the service had previously delivered in person.  

The research project undertaken by the PCMHS and researchers at Cardiff University comprised semi-structured interviews with women who had accessed and completed a group or individualised online-delivered psychological intervention during the perinatal period. The project team also interviewed women who had declined to take part or had dropped out part way through an on-line delivered psychological intervention.

The project team found that virtual intervention can be a very effective, acceptable and convenient option for many women, but identified factors affecting or preventing engagement for which appropriate measures should be taken.

Recommendations based on the research findings include using a simple screening process to assess suitability for virtual interventions based on whether the person has a safe space, support with childcare, access, confidence and skills with technology, and additional support for any hidden disabilities or impairments that could hinder their access.

The project team has also published new resources to support staff to optimise the delivery of virtual interventions and encourage service users to participate in them.

Dr Cerith Waters, Clinical Lead Psychologist for Perinatal Mental Health Services in Cardiff and Vale University Health Board and Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University, said: “We know that one in five women will experience a mental health problem at some point during pregnancy and the first year postpartum.

“Online-delivered psychological interventions provide the opportunity to reach a wider number of perinatal women who have traditionally found it difficult to access clinic-based services due to transport, childcare, pregnancy and mental health related concerns. This is particularly relevant in Wales where our health boards cover a wide geographical area with limited transport links.

“Moving forward, we aim to share our learning and innovations across NHS Wales to help ensure more equitable access to psychological interventions during the perinatal period.’

Dr Mark Griffiths, Innovation Lead at Improvement Cymru, said: “It is heartening to see how we can use technology in such innovative ways to help people receive the best care available, in a way that meets their needs and at the same time reducing some of the burden on our frontline services.

“We hope to see these recommendations taken on board across Wales so that the best service possible is offered to perinatal women experiencing mental health conditions.”

The research into digital interventions during the perinatal period is one of a pair of research projects funded by Improvement Cymru in June 2022, aiming to deliver improvements and innovation in health and care delivery.

The funding was awarded in line with the priorities in Improvement Cymru’s ‘Achieving Quality and Safety Improvement’ strategy, which aims to support the creation of the best quality health and care system for Wales so that everyone has access to safe, effective and reliable care in the right place and at the right time across the whole care system.

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