Rise in perinatal and postpartum depression needs to be tackled

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Arryian Gorey had never felt so alone.

She got pregnant in March 2021, with the pandemic in full swing and coronavirus vaccines still hard to get. Gorey was also single, living by herself in an apartment in Buffalo, and making ends meet with a stressful day job and side gig as a yoga instructor.

“It was a lot to deal with,” she said. “I didn’t have an active partner, there was all this pushback at work — I mean, just being alone every day of your pregnancy is extremely depressing.”

Depression during and after pregnancy afflicts many people, and the pandemic has only worsened this mental health issue, health-care practitioners say. These kinds of depression can include deep sadness, heightened anxiety and incessant exhaustion that makes it hard for sufferers to care for themselves and their family.

“Even before covid happened, we knew there was an increase in the number of women who had postpartum depression, so the pandemic added on top of that,” said Clayton J. Shuman, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing.

Shuman is a lead author of a pair of studies from the University of Michigan School of Nursing and Michigan Medicine, which found that a third of people who had babies in early-to-mid-2020 experienced postpartum depression. That is triple pre-pandemic levels.

A fifth of the 670 survey respondents they in one of the studies said thought about harming themselves. The results, published in BMC Research Notes, showed that formula feeding, neonatal intensive care unit admission and worry about coronavirus infection drove up the risks of depression.

“We weren’t surprised there were more, but we were surprised there were so many more people suffering,” Shuman said.

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For Shuman, the pandemic highlighted existing flaws in the nation’s response to maternal psychological health. “The major problem,” he said, “is that, systemically, I don’t think we screen very well” in perinatal and postpartum mental care. “And we also don’t really provide tailored resources for the needs we do identify,” he said. “It’s a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Addressing those flaws, he said, would require public health departments to work more closely with perinatal patients and create more robust and effective screening tools and treatments. It would also require more investment in education, such as free-to-affordable classes for new and expecting mothers and their families.

The pandemic — with its quarantines, visitation limits and political rifts — has made having a baby more isolating than usual for many people.

By eliminating many social supports for people with perinatal and postpartum depression and anxiety, experts say, the pandemic underscored just how vital they are for treating the mood disorders. They are even more needed for patients of color, who are several times more likely to suffer from perinatal mental illness but less likely to secure treatment than other people.

With mental health issues driving maternal mortality in some states — including California, where Stanford University researchers in 2019 identified it as the leading cause of deaths among new moms — experts say the stakes are too high to let it persist.

For Black parents with postpartum depression, help can be difficult to find

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