By Cara Murez
Researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston surveyed more than 1,100 pregnant and postpartum women between May 21 and Aug. 17. They found that 36%, or more than 1 in 3, had significant levels of depression. Prior to the pandemic, rates of perinatal depression were about 15% to 20%.
More than 1 in 5 women reported significant levels of generalized anxiety. About 1 in 10 had post-traumatic stress disorder above the clinical threshold.
"We know the perinatal period is already a time in which women are particularly vulnerable to mental health concerns," said study author Cindy Liu, of the Departments of Pediatric Newborn Medicine and Psychiatry.
"We primarily wanted to see what factors related to the pandemic might be associated with mental health symptoms," she said in a hospital news release.
The researchers used standardized measures to evaluate COVID-19-related health worries and experiences of grief.
"We were looking for associations that inform what we can do as clinical providers to better support families during this time," said co-author Dr. Carmina Erdei, of the Department of Pediatric Newborn Medicine.
"We wanted to know what is being taken away when a new mother is not able to participate in the usual rituals around birth and welcoming a new family member. The survey responses offer valuable insight into that and help guide what we as health care professionals can do better," she said in the release.
About 9% of new mothers said they felt a strong sense of grief, loss or disappointment because of the pandemic. This group was five times more likely to experience significant mental health symptoms, according to the study.
More women, about 18%, said they felt very worried or extremely worried about COVID-19 health risks. This group was four times more likely to experience clinically significant psychiatric symptoms, the study reported. Researchers also found that people with preexisting mental health diagnoses were about two to four times more likely to experience significant measures of depression, anxiety or PTSD.
The survey responses reflect what researchers observed clinically during the early months of the pandemic, when many of the usual perinatal supports were limited due to fears surrounding COVID-19 infection risks.
Obstetric practices weren't able to screen for mental health symptoms as well, all while people's mental health was under the most pressure, the authors noted. Since then, however, mental health supports have come back in new ways, especially through virtual platforms.
Study limitations include that a high percentage of participants were white and college-educated. About 45% had a household income above $150,000. The research is missing the perspectives of other important segments of the population, Liu said.
The research was published online recently in Psychiatry Research.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers more on COVID-19 and pregnancy.
SOURCE: Brigham and Women's Hospital, news release, Dec. 1, 2020