The importance of addressing perinatal depression

During pregnancy, expectant mothers may worry about high blood pressure, miscarriage, or any illnesses that could impact the baby. However, many mothers are often surprised by a different kind of complication called perinatal depression, a condition common among many pregnant and new mothers that can last up to 1 year after a baby’s birth.

Prominent celebrities such as Serena Williams have recently detailed their struggles with perinatal depression and the lack of discussion on the topic. Recently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released recommendations on this issue, asking physicians to screen for new mothers and pregnant women that “are at risk of becoming depressed.” The screenings are important considering that approximately 1 in 7 pregnant women and new mothers are depressed during pregnancy or within a year after giving birth. For young mothers and mothers at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, as many as 1 in 3 women are at risk for perinatal depression.

Depression during or after pregnancy not only impacts the mother, but also the child and the entire family unit. Studies have shown that perinatal depression is linked to premature birth, babies with lower birth weight, and also cognitive delays for children. In severe episodes of perinatal depression, mothers may even become suicidal or harm herself and the baby.

What makes perinatal depression so difficult to prevent in our healthcare system? First and foremost is access to care. Generally, cities have better access to mental health care services compared to rural areas. In addition, many OB-GYNs are not properly trained to treat perinatal depression. Most only know how to screen and diagnose for depression, however the physicians may not have the necessary skills or easy access to psychiatric services to address mental health complications that come during and after pregnancy.

Certain states like Massachusetts have established programs to increase access to psychiatry services for new mothers. However, such programs are not established in many states yet. Due to a lack of state sponsored programs, it is important for women to discuss with their doctor during their pregnancy about the possible complications of depression, especially if they have a history of anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders. It is also important for new or expectant mothers to surround themselves with a solid support system in the case they experience unanticipated depression. Hopefully, the recent focus on perinatal depression in the news can be leveraged to start new preventive initiatives across the country, or at the very least, open dialogue between healthcare professionals and new mothers.