A unique group of midwifery students are among the first in the UK to begin specialist training which looks after the mental wellbeing of women throughout their pregnancy and beyond.

Responding to a national shortage of full-time midwives in the NHS, the University of Sunderland launched its BSc (Hons) Midwifery Practice three-year undergraduate degree, which further enhances the range of healthcare programmes now provided on campus, from medicine, healthcare sciences, paramedic practice and nursing to physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

At the heart of the multi-million-pound Midwifery Suite, the programme has been designed to address challenges specifically around perinatal mental health.

Perinatal mental illness is a major public health issue that can have a devastating impact on women and their families, resulting in conditions such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

But with increasing knowledge of mental health and emotional wellbeing in relation to pregnancy, birth and the postnatal period, the programme recognises that this is of growing importance to maternity care and the emotional and social wellbeing in babies and toddlers.

Lead Midwife for Education, Linda McNamee said: “The programme is off to an excellent start with a very enthusiastic group of students.

“Already they have started to learn the essential knowledge and skills that will prepare them for their first clinical placements.

“The maternity staff in the various clinical settings are excited to meet the midwives of the future and support them in their educational journey.”

“Our programme focuses not only on the physical health of the mother and new-born but also the mental health of the mother before, during and after birth.

“It will provide a unique opportunity for students to understand the challenges faced by midwives regarding mental health, therefore building a greater understanding and ability to support women, newborns and their families as part of the future workforce.”

One of the first to join the programme, former procurement specialist Claire Harrison, was inspired to become a midwife thanks to the care she received when she was pregnant with her daughters.

She said: “I think pregnancy and birth are one of the most life-changing experiences that a person can go through.

“It can either be a good experience, or not so good, that can impact on women and families for the rest of their lives.

“As a midwife, if we can help identify any signs that a mum may need additional support with her mental health through her pregnancy and beyond, then we will be able to set them on the right path, making sure they’re looked after and not struggling.”

Bethany Stott, a former Army recruit, who also worked as a rehabilitation assistant at St Benedict’s Hospice, before completing an Access Course at Sunderland College, was also inspired to become a midwife after receiving excellent care when she became pregnant with her own children.

She said: “Being a source of support for women throughout their pregnancy is such a rewarding job, as well as being a privilege.

“Also being among the first cohort to study on this programme is a real honour and the support has been fantastic, as well as studying in amazing facilities.

“Once I’ve qualified, I’ll hopefully continue to advance my practice as a midwife.”

The Midwifery Suite has been designed as part of a wide-ranging external consultation with regional NHS Trusts, maternity services and the Patient, Carer and Public Involvement (PCPI) programme (a group of services users and carers).

Located in Helen McArdle Nursing and Care Research Institute, the Midwifery Suite has been established with the help of £1.8m in funding from Health Education England, the Catherine Cookson Charitable Trust and NHS Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group.

Featuring the latest equipment in maternity care, which will take students from ante-natal care and childbirth, through to post-natal support, the Midwifery Suite reflects how mothers are choosing their care.

Clinical placements are also a key part of the programme and will be delivered in collaboration with South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Tees, Esk & Wear Valley NHS Foundation Trust and Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust.