Dan Parton cutA report published this week calculated the cost of perinatal mental health problems to the UK economy, and once again showed why tackling those problems needs to be more of a priority for politicians and policy makers.

In these austere times, headline figures about how much something costs seem to carry more weight, especially in terms of getting something done. So figures released this week that found that perinatal depression, anxiety and psychosis together carry a total long-term cost to society of about £8.1 billion for each one-year cohort of births in the UK, garnered headlines and attention in equal measure.

While these sorts of figures can be disputed – it all depends how you work them out – there can be no denying that perinatal mental health problems have a huge cost in the UK.

But while the financial aspect is enormous, the human cost is even larger, and that should not be forgotten. Pre- and postnatal depression can have serious and long-lasting impacts on both mother and child, especially when they don’t get treated quickly and difficulties escalate.

The research, by the London School of Economics (LSE) and Political Science and the Centre for Mental Health (CMH), is part of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance’s ‘Everyone’s Business’ campaign, which is appealing to government and health commissioners to ensure that all women who experience perinatal mental health problems receive the care they and their families need, wherever and whenever they need it.

It is a much-needed campaign: research from earlier this year showed that only 3% of clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in England have a perinatal mental health strategy in place, and fewer than half have any plans to put one in place.

Parenting charity NCT sent Freedom of Information requests to 194 CCGs in England and 186 replied. Only 5 said they had a strategy. Out of the remaining 97%, 60% had no plans to put one in place, while 18% said they were planning to develop one or are in the process of doing so.

So, the patchiness of current provision, and the human and monetary cost of perinatal mental health problems appear to make a compelling case for change and investment in improving services.

But, of course, there is a problem and it is the perennial one: money. The LSE/CMH report said the NHS needs to spend £337 million a year to bring care up to the recommended level. Now, in an NHS that is as cash-strapped as it is – despite government assertions that spending has been protected – finding the extra money will be, to put it optimistically, very difficult. 

Commissioners are still looking to make cuts wherever possible, but this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t make investments as well. Research shows that when mothers get the care they need, when they need it, they can recover quickly. Where someone lives shouldn’t determine whether they get that care. 

While any announcements on new investment from central government are unlikely before the next election, this is an issue that politicians cannot afford to ignore. A commitment to investing in and improving perinatal mental health services should be in all parties’ manifestos when they are released next year. This is not just an issue about saving money; it is a human concern – saving on suffering, which is surely more important than pounds and pence.