Motherhood can be joyous, frustrating, terrifying, miraculous, exhausting, and messy. It is all these things at once in normal times. But these, as we know, are not normal times.
Among the many aspects of life that COVID-19 has upended, maternal mental health is one that could have lasting implications not only for mothers but also for entire families, as perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) are linked to premature delivery, low birth weight, and other complications for both mother and baby. We often say, “it takes a village to raise a child,” but for many women, that village seemed to vanish in March 2020. Social isolation and social distancing, as well as fear of infection and financial stress, have posed new mental health risks that we haven’t seen before.
Seeking help for depression and anxiety is more important now than ever. May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month, and physicians and patient advocates from around the world are hoping to get the word out to help women and their partners seek the help they need.
Signs of PMADs include extreme sadness, hopelessness, low motivation, loss of interest in usual activities, anxiety, and fatigue that may make it difficult for women to care for themselves or others. Women who are experiencing these symptoms can start by telling their obstetrician or primary care doctor what they are experiencing and/or asking for a referral to a mental health specialist. Expectant mothers can also ask to be screened at prenatal appointments and again after birth.
We screen all women who are scheduled to deliver at the hospital and provide assessment, consultation, and connections to services. Women who are feeling down or depressed can make a telehealth appointment with a therapist or a reproductive psychiatrist like me. We also offer a maternal mental health support line to help connect families with a mental health specialist.
In addition, we empower women through education. With most traditional parent groups and baby classes on pause, we are now offering a new educational tool, NurtureVR, which uses virtual reality (VR) to immerse a mom-to-be in the educational experiences they would normally get in person: breastfeeding, engaging with baby, developmental information and more. Using VR allows us to bring these education programs to an expectant mother in her own home in a way that feels safe and comfortable.
For women who feel that their “village” is gone, it is important to remember that support still exists, and there are many people who want to share in the joys and complexities of motherhood with them. Through Zoom, phone calls, and socially distanced visits, pregnant women can stay connected to their communities and get the support that they need.
These are not normal times, but they don’t have to be lonely or overwhelming times, either.
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