A unique three-year project provided a lifeline for mothers struggling to find support due to shortfalls in maternity and perinatal services in Northern Ireland.
The Maternal Advocacy and Support (Mas) Project helped more than 300 women experiencing perinatal mental health issues and organisers are now calling for permanent statutory interventions for mothers.
Clare Anderson, Mas Project Coordinator, said: “The project has come to a close and there is a desperate need for on-going statutory support for mothers. It is estimated that one in five women experience mental health issues during pregnancy or in the year after giving birth. Northern Ireland lags significantly behind the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of providing the required services and support for mothers in the region. For example, we are the only devolved region of the United Kingdom without a Mother and Baby Unit (MBU).”
The Mas project, led by the Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WRDA) in partnership with Aware NI, worked across eight women’s centres to develop a network of peer support groups for those experiencing perinatal mental health issues. The project even managed to continue throughout the difficult Covid crisis, supporting women both in person and online.
The project has also provided women with the opportunity to get involved in campaigning and raising awareness of issues relating to women in the perinatal period, including the mother and baby unit campaign, launch of the Mas Matter flyer for healthcare professionals, breast- feeding support and pelvic floor exercise awareness raising.
Research on this project compiled by Aoife Mallon, Policy Assistant at WRDA, showed that 100% of those surveyed said that the Mas Project had a positive impact on their mental health and they felt more supported and better able to advocate on issues relating to their mental health.
At a special event to celebrate the successes of the three-year project, women came together to share their difficult experiences of the health service and how finding a community of mothers through Mas has been a lifeline.
The project has created a special book documenting the real-life stories of 20 women who participated in the project sharing stories of pain, loss, abuse, bereavement, adversity and trauma as well as resilience and strength. The women reveal how being able to speak to each other in a non-judgemental setting was crucial to helping them find ways to cope.
“The women involved in the book are very proud of documenting their experiences and giving a broad sense of the challenges women are facing in the community. We hope that this is a platform that will improve future services by helping health care providers and other parents understand what it feels like to deal with the lack of statutory support and how trauma impacts on women’s mental health.” Clare added.
Wendynicole McGuinness-Keys, an artist originally from Limavady who moved to Belfast in 2019, felt isolated and alone after a traumatic birth and emergency surgery. As she struggled with her mental health, and with her family living so far away, she was referred to the Mas Project at Windsor Women’s Centre.
Wendynicole said: “Mas has been a lifeline to me. It has been the best way for me to build an amazing, supportive community where this is no judgement. We talk about everything – warts and all – and everything is confidential within our group. We’ve got a WhatsApp group too and so you feel you are always in contact with each other and you can ask anything, day or night. If there had been no Mas Project, I would not have coped; the support of the girls has helped me so much. The time I spend in the weekly Mas group is great craic, but more than that, it’s a time that I can just be me.”
The project, which was funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, partnered with eight women’s centre to provide support for mothers. This included: Falls Women’s Centre, Windsor Women’s Centre, Ballybeen Women’s Centre, Atlas Women’s Centre, Women’s Centre Derry, Strathfoyle Women’s Group, Greenway Women’s Centre and Footprints Women’s Centre.