Pregnant and postpartum women already have a high risk of depression and anxiety: one in seven women struggles with symptoms in the perinatal period. But the coronavirus pandemic has increased these problems, according to a study published in Frontiers in Global Women's Health, which reveals that the likelihood of maternal depression and anxiety has increased substantially during this crisis.
"Social and physical isolation measures are critically necessary to reduce the spread of the virus, but they are affecting the physical and mental health of many of us," says study author Margie Davenport of the University of Alberta, Canada.
For new moms, those stresses come with side effects. "We know that experiencing depression and anxiety during pregnancy and the postpartum period can have detrimental effects on the mental and physical health of the mother and baby that can persist for years." Such effects can include preterm delivery, reduced mother-baby bonding, and delays in infant development.
The study surveyed 900 women, 520 were pregnant and 380 had given birth in the past year, and were asked about their symptoms of depression and anxiety before and during the pandemic. Before the pandemic began, 29% of those women experienced moderate to high anxiety symptoms, and 15% experienced depressive symptoms. During the pandemic, those numbers jumped: 72% experienced anxiety and 41% experienced depression.
Because blocking measures have affected daily routines and access to gyms, the researchers also asked the women if their exercise habits had changed. Of the women surveyed, 64% reduced their physical activity since the pandemic began, while 15% increased and 21% experienced no change. Exercise is a known way to relieve symptoms of depression, so limited physical activity can lead to increased depressive symptoms. In fact, the study found that women who got at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week had significantly lower symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The results are somewhat limited given the fact that the researchers could not survey the women before the pandemic started (since they could not know that a pandemic would occur). The women surveyed could only offer their pre-pandemic symptoms in retrospect. Furthermore, although the researchers asked the women about their symptoms using validated measures, only mental health professionals can validly diagnose an individual with depression or anxiety.
The study was specifically interested in the impact of COVID-19 on new moms, but Davenport maintains that maternal mental health is a critical issue no matter the time. "Even when we are not in a global pandemic, many pregnant and postpartum women often feel isolated, whether due to being hospitalized, not having close friends or family, or other reasons," she says.
"Raising awareness of the impact of social (and physical) isolation on the mental health of pregnant and postpartum women is critical," continues Davenport. Greater awareness makes diagnosis and treatment, the end goal, more likely.