Publish date: 13 May 2024

Dr Sarah Taha, Consultant Perinatal Psychiatrist, Fahima, Expert by Experience, Nicola Wilson, Service Manager, Vincent Law, Clinical Director, and Ayesha Mohideen, Non-Executive Director.JPG
L to R: Dr Sarah Taha, Consultant Perinatal Psychiatrist, Fahima, Expert by Experience, Nicola Wilson, Service Manager, Dr Vincent Law, Clinical Director, and Ayesha Mohideen, Non-Executive Directorat the launch.

West London NHS Trust, the charity SHOUT, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) have launched a pilot project providing free, confidential 24/7 text support service to pregnant women / birthing people, and new parents living in the boroughs of Ealing, Hounslow and Hammersmith and Fulham, who are experiencing mental health problems.

The joint campaign was launched today, at the start of Mental Health Awareness Week, and will help raise awareness of perinatal mental health problems, and getting support early. 

Pregnant women / birthing people, new parents with babies and toddlers up to the age of two, and those who have experienced baby or pregnancy loss (including termination for any reason) can text the word HUG to 85258 if they are struggling to cope or need help “in the moment.”

Local parents have hailed the service a necessary resource for a generation which routinely uses short electronic messages, or text messages to communicate. 

More than a quarter of new and expectant parents in the UK experience what’s called perinatal mental health problems, which can occur during pregnancy or in the first two years after a baby’s birth. Pregnant women / birthing people can develop mental ill health for the first time during pregnancy or after giving birth, and pre-existing mental health conditions can sometimes worsen at any time during the perinatal period.

“During pregnancy and the postnatal period, one in five birthing people encounter mental health challenges,” said Dr Sarah Taha, Consultant Perinatal Psychiatrist, and Clinical Lead at the Trust’s perinatal mental health services.

“The HUG text messaging service will be instrumental in spreading awareness of the help available. It will provide a confidential, non-judgmental platform that's easily accessible and guides individuals to mental health resources in our community, including the West London Perinatal Mental Health and Maternity Trauma and Loss Care Services. This support during such a crucial time will empower individuals to seek help early, leading to improved outcomes for families,” she said.

The pilot will run for two years, and is supported by the RCPsych, which is providing bespoke training for the Shout volunteers handling and responding to the text requests.

When someone texts HUG to 85258, their text will go through to trained volunteers, who are supervised and supported in real time by an expert clinical team.   

Sarah said: “These volunteers will offer real-time support to people who are anxious, stressed, depressed, suicidal or overwhelmed and need immediate support, and where needed, signposting to further resources or services so they can get longer-term support.”

Dr Vincent Law, Clinical Director for Psychological Medicine Services at the Trust praised the project, saying it offers numerous benefits.

“We are very excited to launch this text-based offer which is a  24-hour service, 7 days a week. I think many people will benefit from this offer as they are more comfortable sharing their difficulties over a text message rather than face to face. We will ensure we improve this service with your feedback and link in seamlessly with our Perinatal and Maternity Trauma and Loss Care services,”.

‘I was afraid to ask for help’

Fahima, a mother of two from Southall, who struggled with severe anxiety during her second pregnancy welcomed news of the project.

“It’s good to have multiple avenues into perinatal mental health services. I’m excited for mums especially in the generation we are in of social media and texting. It’s another way of getting support. It’s private and something they can do while breastfeeding and while doing everyday mum life. It’s nice to have something quick and easy, you can type a couple of words and not overextend yourself. I would encourage people to use the service,” she said.

In 2021, at the height of the covid-19 pandemic, Fahima was going through a difficult pregnancy alongside homelessness, and a breakdown in relationships. She began having intrusive thoughts and experiencing severe anxiety, which made it impossible to carry out everyday tasks.

“I couldn’t connect with my baby, and she was crying a lot. It was like an out of body experience. It was scary because I’m very maternal. I wasn’t sleeping or eating and I was breastfeeding. My mother is a midwife and she said ‘are you ok? Something’s off.’ She told me to go to my GP’s website,” said Fahima.

But Fahima was afraid she would be judged if she asked for help.

“I didn’t want to be seen as ungrateful. I had a healthy baby in the middle of covid, and there were women in the same ward as me who had covid who didn’t make it through. I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I thought they would say you’re homeless, you’re a mess, why did you have a baby?” said Fahima.

Fahima did eventually fill in a form on her GP’s website, and was soon referred to perinatal mental health services who visited her at her hostel.

“I was in a hostel and I didn’t want her to come visit and I kept trying to decline but she was very persistent. The perinatal service knows you are struggling so even if you say ‘no’, they don’t stop, they go the extra mile. She visited and she was very warm and welcoming. I felt like I was speaking to somebody who cared. She made me feel it was normal to say I wasn’t feeling great,” said Fahima.

‘It was life-changing’

While under West London’s Perinatal team, Fahima had one-to-one therapy, where she learnt different coping methods like journaling and breathing techniques which she still uses today. She had sessions with an occupational therapist and also attended support groups where she met other parents in similar situations. But because she was still struggling, her doctor suggested adding medication to her treatment plan, and that helped.

“I was nervous about that because I was breastfeeding but she (the doctor) went through everything with me. I had a lot of support, it was life changing. I went in thinking one thing, and I came out transformed into a better mum, a more conscious mum, especially about my feelings and my anxiety and how to live with it,” she said.

Fahima said she didn’t realise it at the time but the Perinatal team was culturally sensitive to her needs, and that made all the difference in her journey.

“I felt very cared for, and valued and human. I felt like I was being guided through this period like a soft nudge. It never felt like ‘you’re sick, you’re unwell’, and somebody like me, who comes from an African family, from strong black women, that was an important method of treatment for me, because if at any point I had felt judged, I would have withdrawn,” said Fahima.

For the first time in a long time Fahima says she has hope. And she wants that for other struggling families too.

“I feel better, I’m thriving as a mum, I don’t feel like I’m incapable of progressing and doing the things I want to do. I might feel anxious but I feel hopeful.

“It’s only in this past year I’ve thought of the future. I used to only think of surviving the day.  I want to go into mental health. Through my experience I’ve developed a passion to help women who have gone through what I’ve experienced,” said Fahima.

For more information on perinatal mental health and maternity trauma and loss care services at West London NHS visit the website.