NEWS

This Study Explains Why You Need More Mental Health Support During Pregnancy

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Key Takeaways

  • Almost 69% of survey respondents who were pregnant during the pandemic reported moderate to high levels of distress.
  • Plus, 20% of them reported symptoms of depression.
  • Parents’ concerns included the cancellation of in-person prenatal classes and the risk of contracting COVID-19 while pregnant.
  • More needs to be done to support the mental health of pregnant individuals amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, say the researchers.

Pregnancy can be both a joyous and a stressful time. According to a study published in Canadian Family Physician, people who were pregnant during the COVID-19 pandemic experienced moderate to high levels of distress and depressive symptoms.

“There have been many changes and areas of uncertainty during the pandemic, impacting so many elements of the perinatal journey,” says psychiatrist Lucy Barker, MD, FRCPC, who is a PhD student at the Institute for Health Policy, Management, and Evaluation at the University of Toronto. “Our team—including family physicians, an obstetrician, and perinatal psychiatrists—wanted to understand what the top concerns of pregnant people were so that we could best tailor care and provide support.”

Let’s take a deeper look into what the study found and what it means for pregnant individuals as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

A Closer Look at the Findings 

The researchers surveyed nearly 1,500 participants online who had been pregnant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost 69% of respondents reported moderate to high levels of distress and 20% of them reported depressive symptoms.

For first-time parents, the main stressors were the cancellation of in-person prenatal classes and hospital tours. Second- and third-time parents were most concerned about COVID-19 transmission from older kids. Other stressors included concerns about supporting people in the hospital during labor and the risk of contracting COVID-19 while pregnant.

Lucy Barker, MD, FRCPC

So many different domains of pregnancy were impacted by the pandemic and these changes and uncertainties have been very concerning for many first- and multiple-time parents.

— Lucy Barker, MD, FRCPC

“Our findings really reflect what we have been seeing clinically,” says Dr. Barker. “So many different domains of pregnancy were impacted by the pandemic, including perinatal care and social supports, and these changes and uncertainties have been very concerning for many first- and multiple-time parents.”

One limitation of the study was that it didn’t have data to compare levels of distress in people who were pregnant before the pandemic. But the high levels of distress found in the study is still cause for concern. “This highlights the importance of ensuring pregnant people are adequately supported,” Dr. Barker says.

Change is Needed

COVID-19 brought about many changes and new, often nerve-wracking situations. “The finding that pregnant women are experiencing more distress doesn’t surprise me at all,” says Carly Snyder, MD, a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist, and Verywell Family review board member.

Dr. Snyder explains that pregnancy often causes a sense of powerlessness (over our bodies, over the health of the baby, etc.), but when a global pandemic is thrown in the mix, that undermines our normal lives. “It’s understandable that pregnant women would experience an added level of stress and anxiety,” she says.

It hasn’t helped that the information about COVID-19 and pregnancy has been inconsistent at times, Dr. Snyder adds. Plus, there remains hesitancy about vaccine safety despite the clear benefit of inoculation.

“Early in the pandemic, restrictions on who could be present during a woman’s labor caused great distress as this further undermined a woman’s sense of control and safety,” she says. “Failure to safely have family or a baby nurse to help in the home postpartum was—and is—an understandable source of anxiety, disappointment, and stress.”

Carly Snyder, MD

Many women feel highly isolated and alone, more so than before the pandemic, and this is a further cause of stress and sadness.

— Carly Snyder, MD

Dr. Snyder also points out that pre-COVID-19, a baby’s birth often brought the family together, and the inability to introduce one’s newborn to loved ones safely during the pandemic has been very disappointing and sad for many new parents. “Many women feel highly isolated and alone, more so than before the pandemic, and this is a further cause of stress and sadness,” she says.

The study also found that women were stressed by the inability to preplan with birthing classes and hospital tours. Dr. Snyder suggests that making these resources available virtually is an easy way to reduce maternal distress.

“Having virtual prenatal visits at the same frequency as before the pandemic can help women feel taken care of and safe,” she says. “Consistent messaging and communication about COVID-19 protocols and research can also help reduce stress for pregnant women during the pandemic.”

What This Means For You

Pregnancy can bring a mixture of emotions, and not all of them feel great. It’s important to take care of yourself at this time—eat a well-balanced diet, get plenty of rest and sleep, try to exercise regularly, and take your prenatal vitamins.

If you’re experiencing anxiety, low mood, or other mental health issues during pregnancy, speak to your OB/GYN or a therapist. The sooner you reach out, the sooner you’ll get the help you need to start feeling better.

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  1. Bogler T, Hussain-Shamsy N, Schuler A, et al. Key concerns among pregnant individuals during the pandemic: online cross-sectional survey. Can Fam Physician. 2021;67(9):e257-e268. doi:10.46747/cfp.6709e257