Preventing postpartum depression: Start with women at greatest risk

February 12, 2019

January 30, 2019 from ObGynNews

The last decade has brought appropriate attention to the high prevalence of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders, with postpartum depression (PPD) constituting the most common complication in modern obstetrics.

There have been very substantial efforts in more than 40 states in the United States to enhance screening for PPD and to increase support groups for women with postpartum depressive or anxiety symptoms. However, less focus has been paid to the outcomes of these screening initiatives.

A question that comes to mind is whether patients who are screened actually get referred for treatment, and if they do receive treatment, whether they recover and become well. One study referenced previously in this column noted that even in settings where women are screened for PPD, the vast majority of women are not referred, and of those who are referred, even fewer of those are treated or become well.1

It is noteworthy, then, that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has recommended screening for perinatal depression (just before and after birth) and issued draft recommendations regarding prevention of perinatal depression where it is suggested that patients at risk for perinatal depression be referred for appropriate “counseling interventions” – specifically, either cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT).2

The recommendation is a striking one because of the volume of patients who would be included. For example, the USPSTF recommends patients with histories of depression, depression during pregnancy, a history of child abuse, or even a family history of depression should receive preventive interventions with CBT or IPT. The recommendation is puzzling because of the data on risk for perinatal depression in those populations and the lack of available resources for patients who would be deemed “at risk.” Women with histories of depression are at a threefold increased risk for PPD (25%-30%). Depression during pregnancy is the strongest predictor of PPD and risk for PPD among these patients is as high as 75%.

So, there are a vast number of women who may be “at risk” for perinatal depression. But even with some data suggesting that IPT and CBT may be able to prevent perinatal depression, the suggestion that resources be made available to patients who are at risk is naive, because counseling interventions such as IPT or CBT, or even simply referrals to psychiatrists are not available even to patients who screen in for perinatal depression in real time during pregnancy and the postpartum period. I have previously written that the follow-up of women postpartum who suffer from PPD is still far from meeting the needs who suffer from the disorder, and early detection and referrals to appropriate clinicians who are facile with both pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic interventions seem the most effective way to manage these patients and to see that they receive treatment.

The question then becomes: If the numbers or scale of the prevention initiative suggested in this draft recommendation from the USPSTF is an overreach, is there a group of patients for whom a preventive intervention could be pursued? The patients at highest risk for PPD include those with a history of PPD (50%), bipolar disorder (50%-60%), or postpartum psychosis (80%). And while there is not substantial literature for specifically using IPT, CBT, or other counseling interventions to mitigate risk for recurrence in women with histories of PPD, bipolar disorder, or postpartum psychosis, there are ways of identifying this population at risk and following them closely to mitigate the risk for recurrence.

To make this recommendation feasible, an infrastructure needs to be in place in both low resource settings and in all communities so that these patients can be referred and effectively treated. If we move to prevention, we ought to start with the populations that we already know are at greatest risk and that we can inquire about, and there are very easy-to-use screens that screen for bipolar disorder or that screen for past history of depression with which these women can be identified.

In committee opinion 757, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends women be screened at least once during the perinatal period for depression and anxiety symptoms and highlighted several validated tools, such as the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale.3 We also need a better system of early detection and early intervention so that women at less-considerable risk for perinatal depression would have the opportunity for early identification, treatment, and referral, which we do not have at the current time.

An update of the ACOG committee opinion also states, “It is recommended that all obstetrician-gynecologists and other obstetric care providers complete a full assessment of mood and emotional well-being (including screening for PPD and anxiety with a validated instrument) during the comprehensive postpartum visit for each patient.” This is recommended in addition to any screening for depression and anxiety during the pregnancy.

It is exciting that after decades of failing to attend to such a common complication of modern obstetrics, we finally have seen a recent increased appreciation for the need to aggressively identify and treat PPD, particularly now that we understand the adverse effects of PPD as it affects child development, family functioning, and risk for later childhood psychopathology. But in addition to recognizing the problem, we must come up with methods to carefully identify a navigable route for the women suffering from PPD to get their needs met. The route includes publicly identifying the illness, understanding which treatments are most effective and can be scaled for delivery to large numbers of women, and then, most critically, configuring social systems to absorb, effectively manage, and monitor the women we identify as needing treatment.

Dr. Cohen is the director of the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, which provides information resources and conducts clinical care and research in reproductive mental health. He has been a consultant to manufacturers of psychiatric medications. Email him at


1. J Clin Psychiatry. 2016 Sep;77[9]:1189-200.

2. Draft Recommendation Statement: Perinatal Depression: Preventive Interventions. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Aug 2018.

3. Obstet Gynecol. 2018;132:e208-12.