Perinatal mental illness has a huge human as well as economic cost. At least 20% of mothers develop mental health problems during pregnancy, or within a year of giving birth. There is a need to reach out to Black and minority ethnic groups to enable easier access to services. There are also gaps in provision for the perinatal mental health needs of fathers and partners.

Specialist community perinatal mental health services (PMHS) have developed rapidly across Essex. Recent research with local parents has shown that the complementary and informal role of peer support is also an important element of PMHS, offering hope, empathy, social connections, timely information, and reassurance.

In February 2021, the 7 CCGs across Essex, Southend, and Thurrock commissioned Parents 1st Essex to form a stakeholder partnership to develop a strategy for a Pan Essex Perinatal Peer Support offer. This co-production phase was carried out between March – September 2021 with various members from the community (parents, volunteers, peer support organisations, perinatal mental health, early years and maternity services professionals) through 4 workshops and the creation of a steering group. We explored how peer support could sit alongside PMHS and what was needed to encourage all mums, dads and partners to get the support they need, when they needed it.

The model proposed during this coproduction phase was to establish a Pan Essex PMH Peer Support Collaborative – developing a hub of good practice across Essex using a one-year ‘test and learn’. The aim is to improve perinatal mental health outcomes by supporting evidence-based, effective, and safe peer support to grow and develop across Essex.

This exciting next ‘test and learn’ phase is being funded by the Clinical Commissioning Groups across Essex and will begin early 2022. It will operate in partnership with PMHS provided by Essex Partnership University NHS Trust and the five maternity hubs across Essex.

This is a really exciting development for families across Essex. Through strengthening and growing Essex’s peer support offer, more families will benefit, paving the way for more recognition of the vital role of peer support in supporting emotional wellbeing during pregnancy, birth and beyond.