Improving the mental health and wellbeing of mothers of young children

We recently did some insight research for Stoke on Trent City Council who were at the early stages of developing an intervention to maintain and improve the mental health and wellbeing of women with young children living in the most deprived areas of the city. The mental health of this audience being particularly important due to the impact poor mental health and wellbeing can have on parenting and on the child over time and across generations.

Part of our research explored the potential of The Five Ways to Wellbeing – a set of evidence-based messages aimed at improving the mental health of the whole population – to support this audience to increase their levels of wellbeing. Our research process involved interviews with stakeholders and twenty mothers of young children in Stoke (conducted by our qualitative research partner Skyrocket research). Here are our key findings and conclusions:

1. There is a great need to improve the mental health and wellbeing of this audience. However, wellbeing as a concept is not a priority for these mothers and can be seen as inaccessible and patronising. Most importantly the term ‘wellbeing’ lacks relevance to a busy mother struggling to make ends meet.

Although different groupings within the audience emerged (defined by the stability of the mother’s situation and the number of children they had), the prevailing feeling amongst all the mothers in the research was “if my child is happy, I’m happy”.

A significant proportion of mothers find it difficult to think of themselves as being important in their own right – their sense of self is derived from “being a mum”. For many the thought of spending time and money on themselves also invokes feelings of guilt – they should be doing more for their children instead. Others, when prompted, can appreciate the importance of looking after themselves psychologically but face other barriers (time, money, exhaustion) to taking action.

The mothers we spoke to were clear about what was most important to help them feel better and function well – the provision of practical support and activities so they can keep their children entertained and also wear them out. If these activities (play groups, Children’s Centres, equipment in parks and open spaces) were more readily available, mothers would be more likely to have time for themselves away from the children to relax, be active or connect with others. Some might also find the mental capacity to invest in themselves by proactively doing activities that make them feel better.

There is also a need to provide more tailored advice around coping with the pressures of being a mother and to help mothers take some first steps towards building their self-esteem – for example support to lose weight and improve their appearance.

As practical support and tailored advice are needed the research concludes that the Five Ways to Wellbeing as a concept and a set of messages is not an appropriate means of encouraging this audience of mothers to take action to improve their wellbeing. That is not to say that some mothers, particularly those with more settled lives, would not do more Five Ways activities to keep themselves feeling and functioning well – it is just that the generic Five Ways to Wellbeing “product” is not seen as suitable to stimulate and encourage that change.

Where the Five Ways to Wellbeing will have more value is as an “upstream” internal checklist that the Council can use to assess how wellbeing is encouraged within existing services, activities and initiatives. The benefit of this approach was highlighted by our stakeholder research.

As a result of our research and recommendations Stoke on Trent City Council are progressing some pilot interventions to practically support parents, undertaking an internal review of Children’s Centre activities against the Five Ways to Wellbeing, and developing a check list for Chidren’s Centres and other organisations working with the target audience to ensure opportunities for mothers to take part in activities that might improve how they feel, are being promoted effectively.

“The piece of work undertaken by Cause Action and Skyrocket research has been invaluable in ensuring our intervention is developed with insight of the target population to meet their needs”
– Michelle Halfpenny – Senior Health Improvement Specialist , Public Health – City of Stoke-on-Trent

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