Sally Piper, who was a member of the 'Lived Experience Group' who worked with the University of Exeter to help shape the programme for Netmums, pictured with her son.

University and Netmums join forces to tackle postnatal depression

The University of Exeter and parenting website Netmums are developing a new online therapy programme for postnatal depression.

This innovative approach to treatment has been created in response to the stigma that still surrounds postnatal depression, preventing many women from seeking help.

The research is supported by the PenCLAHRC, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Peninsula Collaboration for Leadership and Applied Health Research and Care.

The research team hopes its programme will pave the way for future online treatments for depression. They are conducting this confidential study of the treatment for free and will assess its effectiveness against regular treatment.

Available through Netmums, the treatment is being developed by University of Exeter psychologist Dr Heather O’Mahen, a therapist with extensive experience of working with women with postnatal depression. Up to 90 women are being recruited to take part in the study, which will include the online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) programme and telephone sessions provided by a trained supporter. 

Research suggests that between 12 and 15 per cent of mothers experience postnatal depression, although most do not seek help. CBT is known to be beneficial in treating postnatal depression but, while online CBT programmes are increasingly being used, this is the first specifically targeted at postnatal depression.

The current, improved programme is based on a pilot study, which more than 900 women took part in through Netmums between 2009 and 2011. Results from the initial trial were promising: nearly 65 per cent of those taking part showed significant improvements to their condition, compared with just under 44 per cent of women who continued their usual treatment. Women also reported that they appreciated being able to take part in the course in their own time, online from home.

Dr Heather O’Mahen of the Mood Disorders Centre at the University of Exeter said: “The results of the initial study show that online therapy has real potential to help women experiencing postnatal depression.

“Unfortunately, postnatal depression is something that many women experience but most do not seek help for. There seems to be a double stigma associated with experiencing depression while being a new mother. It is therefore essential that women are given as many different ways of accessing treatment as possible.”  

Julia McGinley, Head of Support Services at Netmums, said "Thousands of women suffering with postnatal depression come to Netmums each year to look for help, and many have been unwilling or unable to find local support. It is wonderful to have been involved in developing this new service which we hope will make an enormous difference to mums across the country. It is such a powerful demonstration that online services can have positive and long-lasting effects."

The new 12-week programme is based on understanding the link between how we feel and what we do. It has a range of modules to choose from covering topics such as anxiety, sleep problems and changing roles and relationships. Women take part in four modules and can then complete additional modules if they choose. They also receive one telephone session a week with a trained telephone supporter throughout the 12-week course.

Women who have experienced antenatal and postnatal depression have helped shape the training and given their expert advice to ensure the programme is presented in the right way and is easy to use.

The programme is available to mothers of children 12 months or younger, who are experiencing postnatal depression, are over 18 and live in the UK.

This study is being conducted by the Mood Disorders Centre, which is a partnership between the NHS and the University of Exeter.

Case studies

Sally Piper

Sally Piper lives near Honiton, Devon, with her partner and two-year-old son. She was also a member of the ‘Lived Experience Group’, who worked with the University of Exeter to help shape the programme for Netmums.

Over the last 18 months, Sally has been enjoying motherhood and balancing caring for her son with working part-time as a self-employed gardener. However, her first six months as a mother were not as happy. She explains: “Ten days after a perfect pregnancy and the beautiful birth of my son I started to feel like everything was spiralling out of control. I suffered very badly from anxiety and I knew this wasn't normal.”

Sally and her son stayed with her parents in Derbyshire for nearly six months. Along with support from her family, she received help from the family GP, who prescribed her antidepressants, and she paid for private counselling. She also signed-up for the first University of Exeter programme on Netmums.

Speaking about her recovery, she says: “I was desperate to get well and was very proactive in looking for help. I felt much better within six months and after a year I was back to my normal self. When I got better, I thought ‘I want to help people. Something positive has to come out of this.’ When the University of Exeter and Netmums contacted me to ask for my help with this on-line course I felt this was a perfect opportunity to do so. I only wish this course was around for me at the time as I believe it would have aided my recovery and given me skills for life.”

Sally feels strongly that talking about her experience aided her recovery and hopes that she can help, in some way, to remove the stigma surrounding postnatal depression. She says: “Remember if you are suffering from postnatal depression, it’s not your fault, it will end and you will go back to the person you were before. I am living proof, I have a wonderful happy two-year-old boy and those dark days are a distant memory now.”

Emma Seaman

Emma Seaman is a freelance marketing professional, who lives near Newton Abbot, Devon, with her husband and two daughters, aged six and four. She was diagnosed with postnatal depression when her second child was around six months old. She explains: “I realised I was not coping. I was very depressed, incredibly tearful and really miserable. I thought everyone would be better off without me. I knew it wasn’t normal because I hadn’t felt that way after having my first child.”

She was fortunate to have a supportive husband and a health visitor who referred her to a local organisation that ran an eight-week group therapy programme, which made use of CBT techniques, much like the course developed by the University of Exeter and Netmums. In addition, she sought support from online networks, including Netmums, where she could communicate with other women with similar experiences. She was also prescribed antidepressants by her GP, but feels the group therapy enabling support, advice and friendship from other mums in the same situation was the key to her recovery. She says: “One day I realised I was so much better. I started smiling again and enjoying the little things in life. I love being a mother, and now I view the depression as a blessing in disguise; it turned my life upside down, but also took it in some amazing new directions.”

Emma worked with the University of Exeter to help shape the therapy now available on Netmums. She says: “I think women’s networks provide the strongest support you can get. I would have loved to have had access to this online programme; it will help so many mums and their children. No-one else should have to suffer the way I did and it is important for women who are going through this to know that it does get better – it really does.”

Date: 16 January 2012