June 14, 2021 | Erin Bluvas, firstname.lastname@example.org
A recent study, published in Birth: Issues in Perinatal Care, has found higher percentages of pregnant women have experienced symptoms of depression, thoughts of self-harm and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on these findings, the authors recommend that healthcare providers immediately begin screening and treating pregnant women for mental health conditions.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, pregnant women represent a uniquely vulnerable group,” says Jihong Liu, professor of epidemiology and principal investigator on the study. “Meeting the mental health needs of pregnant people during the COVID-19 pandemic is critical because mental health disorders in pregnancy can have devastating effects on women, infants and families.”
Every three months, including during the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately one million women in the United States give birth. Before the pandemic, one in seven pregnant women already experience mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety. In the early pandemic, as high as two out of five pregnant women reported experiencing mood disorders. The vulnerability of pregnant women to mental health conditions has been amplified by healthcare disruptions and numerous worries and stresses (e.g., deaths/infection in the family, financial challenges, loneliness).
With special funding support from the Office of the Vice President for Research, researchers from across the Arnold School led or contributed to 17 projects to capture data about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as it unfolds. In May 2020, Liu and her team surveyed a racially and geographically diverse group of pregnant women from all 50 states of the United States about their mental health.
Their analyses of the data they collected from more than 700 women revealed that approximately 36 percent of the respondents suffered from probable depression, 22 percent of women reported anxiety, and 20 percent reported thoughts of harming themselves. More than 43 percent of these women were identified as having depression, anxiety or both – at least 2.5 times higher than pre-pandemic levels.
The researchers found three out of five pregnant women reported canceling or reducing their medical appointments during the pandemic. Healthcare disruption and strict social distancing were associated with higher probable depression. Women from households with more adults working from home due to the pandemic were less likely to experience depression and self-harm – perhaps due to enhanced financial security and social support.
Despite existing health disparities that have exacerbated the effects of the pandemic on socially vulnerable groups (e.g., minorities), the researchers found that non-Hispanic Black women had significantly lower odds of depression and anxiety than white women. The authors note that this finding might be explained by results from other studies that suggest Black women have exhibited higher resilience than white women during the pandemic.
In addition to the urgent need for screening and treating mental health conditions among pregnant women, the investigators recommend a follow-up study to evaluate the impacts of COVID-19-related stress and mental health problems on pregnancy health (e.g., complications, birth outcomes, maternal/infant mortality). Future research should also test innovative telehealth interventions to help prevent and treat mental health problems associated with the pandemic.