Mental health: Wales' only unit for mothers and baby opens

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Toni Evans says having to travel 180 miles from her family for help was "horrific"

Pregnant women and new mothers with mental health problems in south Wales will no longer have to travel to England to get help after a new unit opened in Neath Port Talbot.

Uned Gobaith is the only mother and baby unit in Wales for those with serious mental health issues.

One mother who had to be treated in Derby said having this would have made a "huge difference".

The unit in Tonna Hospital, Neath, opened to patients on Monday.

Women can be treated there from their 32nd week of pregnancy up to their babies being a year old.

In 2013, Wales' only psychiatric mother-and-baby unit (MBU) - which had allowed women to be admitted alongside their babies - in Cardiff, closed.

It meant women living in Wales have had to travel to England for inpatient treatment, with some going as far as Derby and Nottingham, or to be treated in an adult psychiatric unit with no contact with their child.

Campaigners have been calling for the opening of a new unit for years, to stop women with conditions, including postpartum psychosis, being separated from their children.

'The depression just got unbearable'

Image source, Family photo
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Toni Evans' mental health declined when she was pregnant with her second child, Sarah

Toni Evans, from Port Talbot, would have been a perfect candidate for the unit.

However the 34-year-old had to be treated in Derby, 180 miles from home, when she developed depression while pregnant with her second child, Sarah.

"It just got worse and worse as the pregnancy went on," Toni said.

"The depression just got unbearable. I remember ringing my husband on the way to work one day saying that I was going to drive into a wall because I just needed help. Obviously I didn't, but I just wanted to get out of it.

"Once the baby was born, I started medication straight away, but within two weeks my mental health deteriorated even further."

Toni was admitted to an acute mental health ward, but as it had no mother and baby facilities, she was away from Sarah for three days.

A space became available at a specialist mother and baby unit in Derby while she was in hospital.

She said: "At this point I couldn't really think, I couldn't answer questions so my husband had to say yes for me.

"When we finally got to the unit, I didn't want the chaperones [who accompanied her from Wales] to leave - they were part of home, they were Welsh, they were from where I'm from.

"I was being left in England, in a different country to where my family was."

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"I just didn't feel anything - that was the hardest bit"

Her husband was only able to visit with her son every other weekend because of having to take time off work and taking their son out of school, as well as the cost of accommodation.

Her transition back to home life was also affected by the distance. While people who lived locally could begin visits of a few hours before returning to the unit, Toni went back for a whole week at a time.

"I had to travel four hours home and then, if I didn't like it, I'd have to go four hours back.

"It was just more pressure. I didn't want to make my husband do that trip unnecessarily when he was doing it on weekends. It felt like I should suck it up and get on with it at home.

"It made a big difference to my recovery."

Toni returned home after seven weeks, but suffered a manic episode when Sarah was six months old and this time there was no space in a mother and baby unit for them.

She was treated in an acute mental health ward for four weeks, without Sarah, and was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Toni thinks her experience of treatment and recovery would have been different had an inpatient mother and baby unit been available close to home.

"I think it would have been a lot smoother and I wouldn't have felt so isolated there. I was missing my son - at the time he was four years old - and my husband.

"I felt like I had taken the baby away from them because they weren't able to visit.

"A unit here is just going to make an unbelievable difference for mothers in Wales. It definitely would have made a difference to me."

Image source, Google
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The unit at Tonna Hospital will have six beds

The new unit comes after years of campaigning from mothers, and mental health campaign groups, and a study by the Welsh Health Specialist Services Committee (WHSSC) said the opening of a unit in Wales should be considered.

Until now the nearest MBU has been in Bristol.

Uned Gobaith - which means Unit of Hope - has six bedrooms for mothers and babies, a shared living and kitchen area, a playroom, sensory room and quiet room.

There will also be accommodation available for families visiting from further away.

As well as a team of mental health specialists, nursery nurses will be on hand round the clock while mothers are receiving treatment or resting.

Janet Williams, associate service director for mental health at Swansea Bay University Health Board, said: "When Uned Gobaith opens, we will be able to help women like Toni who are experiencing serious mental health problems, and their babies, in a safe environment much closer to home."

Sharon Fernandez, national clinical lead for perinatal mental health at Public Health Wales, said: "Providing this kind of specialised mental and emotional support for women at one of the most vulnerable times in their life is essential, and the family-friendly environment Uned Gobaith offers means that partners and older children can be involved and get the support they need too."

Senior policy researcher for NSPCC Wales, Dr Sarah Witcombe-Hayes said it was a "long-awaited, but crucial, step forward".