In this blog post Ang Broadbridge, VCSE Maternal Health Services Project Manager, shares some of the learning from the Ways to Wellness VCSE Maternal Mental Health Services Programme, and other Ways to Wellness projects. More information about the programme can be found here.

Across Ways to Wellness projects, we see link workers supporting families with issues linked to their physical and mental health. As pressures around the cost of living crisis continue, despite voluntary and statutory sectors providing crucial support for families, we continue to see the impact of deepening financial pressures on families in the North East and North Cumbria.

Some of the learning from our VCSE Maternal Mental Health Services (MMHS) project, PROSPeR (Waiting Well) and the SPACE pilot is that services are not necessarily providing what families need.

In our recent blog we shared findings from a recent review of the support that our link workers are providing to families through our VCSE Maternal Mental Health Services. We explored the activities and services they are linking their families to. This particularly highlighted that families have valued being connected to financial and housing support, food banks and baby banks and support to access grants for infant essentials including formula milk and nappies.

We have heard that people are struggling and stigma impacts how and if people ask for help. Mums tell us that they fear social services involvement, and we see the impact and complexities of this in our caseloads.

One link worker has been supporting a Mum to access support around budgeting. The Mum missed a mental health appointment because she didn’t have the money she needed to travel there, after she had given her baby’s formula milk to a friend in need and then used her bus fare to buy more for her little one. Link workers are well placed to unpack these complexities, and to connect people to support where available, for example making families aware of Healthy Start vouchers and applying for grant support with supermarket vouchers. But in our experience many people are struggling with these challenges.

Access to childcare can also be a barrier to parents getting the support they need. Families are not always aware of how the government scheme for childcare vouchers works. Creche costs can be prohibitive. And, while people may use childcare for work, they may not have any support available for mental health appointments or self care activities. Some statutory services are aware of gaps such as these. They have told us that they value the link workers’ knowledge of what is available and the time that the link worker has to make these connections:

'My eyes were opened [by the Link Worker] as to resources and support available in our area that I never knew existed, for the women and families we provide care to, that have been there for ages, but I didn’t know were available to us.’

– Midwife

The Ways to Wellness SPACE pilot, which explores social prescribing for children with complex chronic conditions, has found that these cost of living challenges are compounded by the additional cost burden for parents with children with complex chronic conditions. Our link workers have supported families to source aids and adaptations. These can be as simple as a rain cover for a specially adapted buggy. But because the buggy is more specialist, the cost of this equipment is significantly higher than a standard buggy rain cover. Not being able to access mainstream goods and services can mean that families are not able to get out and about for much needed fresh air and exercise which would be of benefit for their child’s physical health and wellbeing.

Across the SPACEPilot and VCSE MMHS projects link workers reference the strain on relationships – access to couple’s therapy/mediation is generally only available privately, and generic emotional support is not specialist enough for the challenges families are facing together.

These challenges are not exclusive to our projects working with young families. Our PROSPeR (Waiting Well) link workers notice that their patients waiting for orthopaedic surgeries are more isolated than their peers. We have heard that financial hardship is increased by spending 90% of their time at home with the heating on at a time of rising utility costs. And again, many people face the cost of obtaining and maintaining specialised mobility equipment, and increased costs of transportation as they can only take taxis to travel to appointments.

Where possible we try to build an element of financial support into our projects so that we can respond swiftly to needs. We cannot always provide this direct financial support. But we find that small costs (for example repair costs for a mobility scooter, or purchasing a small piece of equipment) can make an enormous difference to people’s independence and get their health and wellbeing back on track.

PROSPeR link workers observed that those without a family support struggled to find a way of getting to relevant interventions. This resulted in more time at home, increased bills and deeper isolation. People also referenced more anxiety around bills and debts and a general lack of awareness of entitlement to benefits.

When the voluntary sector provides direct support to people they often identify gaps in provision and support that really affect people. We also need to ensure that there are really strong 'feedback loops' so we can respond effectively to what we learn - and this should be included in project design from the very start. One example of this is our work on childcare costs. Ways to Wellness is currently supporting a project looking at childcare provision in relation to economic activity in the North East. We are working with some brilliant partners from Newcastle University/Applied Research Collaboration for the North East and North Cumbria, North East Child Poverty Commission, Disability North, North of Tyne Combined Authority and Gateshead Council. These opportunities for data to influence research and policy development help us to ensure there is a wider social and systemic impact to our work.

The feedback we've received gives a few examples for families. This shows the importance of the statutory and voluntary sectors working together closely to come up with innovative solutions for people - something Ways to Wellness is committed to delivering.