Women's mental health issues, particularly those associated with childbearing, will receive a dedicated research focus with the establishment of the country's first Chair of Perinatal and Women's Mental Health.

The Chair is the result of a unique partnership between St John of God Hospital and The University of New South Wales (UNSW) that will see one of the country's leaders in perinatal mental health - Professor Marie-Paule Austin - driving research, policy and education in this area.

Women of childbearing age are twice as likely to experience depression and anxiety as men. Women often first become unwell when faced with the demands of parenthood.

"Approximately 267,000 women give birth each year in Australia and of these up to 16 per cent will be affected by perinatal anxiety and/or depression. That's a lot of mothers, infants and families affected by this condition," explained Professor Austin.

While many people are familiar with postnatal depression, they are less aware that depression and anxiety can occur throughout the whole 'perinatal' period - from pregnancy to the first postnatal year.

"Addressing perinatal mental health issues early is essential for laying the foundation for good mental health in the future. By focusing on this period we address issues with mother-infant bonding, the mother's mental health as well as the wellbeing of her partner and other children," said Professor Austin.

First to combine perinatal and women's mental health

The St John of God Chair of Perinatal and Women's Mental Health will be the first of its kind in Australia to combine both perinatal and women's mental health.

"We believe that to really help women and their families, we need to better understand the factors affecting mental health, even before a woman becomes pregnant and subsequently as she begins to bond with her infant in that first critical year of life," Professor Austin said.

St John of God Hospital funding

St John of God is committing more than $1m over five years to the Chair.

Mr Ramon del Carmen, Executive Director - NSW Services, St John of God Health Care said the significant financial contribution from the hospital was reflective of its commitment to perinatal mental health.

"One in 500 births is associated with severe mental illness and there are 90,000 babies a year born in NSW alone," said Mr del Carmen. "We have been working in this area for 15 years so we see first-hand the need for greater medical training and services for perinatal mental health."

"St John of God Hospital, Burwood is the main facility providing mother and baby beds in NSW so we have the potential to make a major contribution in this important field," Professor Austin added.

"Where mothers are unable to access a specialist mother-baby facility they are separated from their infant. We actually need mum and baby together for mum to reconnect with her baby at this critical time. We also want to include dads in the facility," said Professor Austin.

UNSW research focus

The Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at UNSW, Professor Peter Smith, said perinatal and women's mental health must be tackled from all sides to make a real improvement for Australian women.

"Research is vital for better understanding of these conditions. It enables us to provide improved medical management as well as imparting that knowledge to more doctors through medical training," he said.

Professor Austin and her team will be conducting research into those disorders where there is a high prevalence among women.

"We are interested in knowing how bipolar disorder might be treated more effectively in the child bearing years; how a woman's own childhood experiences might affect bonding with her infant and whether sensitivity to the hormonal changes of the childbearing years may increase a woman's predisposition to postnatal depression or psychosis," she said.

Media contact: Steve Offner | 9385 8107 | s.offner@unsw.edu.au