Having a baby is stressful enough on its own, without having to cope with the complex effects brought on by a global pandemic.
But, as a team of CWU Public Health researchers have discovered, pregnant women and new mothers have been faced with a whole new set of challenges over the past two years, resulting in much higher rates of postpartum depression than before.
New findings by the department’s faculty have revealed that the vast majority of pregnant women reported a major disruption to their prenatal or childbirth care, including new hospital policies and restrictions, eliminating supportive services like childbirth education, or moving services to online and remote platforms.
According to women in this national survey, these changes heightened stress and anxiety more than in the years before COVID-19.
“We found that women in our study were reporting depressive symptoms at rates much higher than what we would typically expect,” said Public Health Professor Tishra Beeson, who is leading the team’s research efforts.
“Usually, we see somewhere between 10 and 15% of women report that they had depressive symptoms during their pregnancy or sometime during that first year of postpartum. But during the pandemic, over 50% of pregnant women enrolled in our study reported experiencing symptoms consistent with clinical levels of perinatal depression.”
Beeson and her colleagues Amy Claridge, Amie Wojtyna, Casey Firebaugh, and Jill Hoxmeier have been working on several different research projects over the past two years, studying risk factors for perinatal and postpartum depression in women who experienced pregnancy and childbirth during the pandemic.
The researchers also involved several students from the Health Sciences and Child Development and Family Sciences departments at CWU to develop a broader understanding of what has been taking place since mid-2020.
Beeson said the research showed pandemic factors everyone experienced—such as health-related concerns, physical and social isolation, financial instability, and a lack of in-person support networks—were the most likely contributors.
“You can imagine for women who are preparing to give birth or raising a brand-new baby in this environment, those stressors are particularly compounded,” she said. “So, it’s not surprising that we saw that increase in self-reported depressive symptoms.”
The study also found that women whose childbirth plans significantly changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic reported more depressive symptoms than those who did not experience such a change.
The research has shown that these stressors, when compounded, are magnified even more in situations where people are unemployed or don’t have access to employer-provided benefit programs that could help. Beeson points to a lack of paid parental leave as an issue that is affecting women and families across the country.
“We know that not every expecting parent has access to paid leave to cover them during pregnancy or the postpartum period,” she said. “In our study, the women who did have some form of paid leave had fewer depressive symptoms when compared with those who did not have paid leave, telling us that the presence of paid family leave is somewhat protective against maternal depression.”
Beeson’s main takeaway from the studies were that providers and health systems need to make sure they are aware of the increased needs many pregnant women have as the pandemic enters its third year. She said current practice guidelines suggest screening for postpartum depression and anxiety should happen at least once during the perinatal period.
But even that level of attention may not capture the full range of experiences many women are going through.
“We need more regular screening—maybe earlier screening—and then we need to connect people who might be experiencing depression with the types of supports and services that might give them some tools to navigate those stressors they’re experiencing,” she said.
She added that there is no single solution to preventing maternal depression, but “we can do more to ensure that expecting families have what they need to thrive during pregnancy and childbirth, that their living and working environments are safe and supportive, and that the health system is well-equipped and ready to help them when needed.”