Dr. Lee S. Cohen, Director of the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, recently shared his insights on access to perinatal mental healthcare with Ob.Gyn News on May 23, 2024.


The first of May is marked as the World Maternal Mental Health Day, a time for patient groups, medical societies, clinicians, and other colleagues who care for women to highlight maternal mental health and to advocate for increased awareness, enhanced access to care, decrease in stigma, and development of the most effective treatments.

In this spirit, and within the context of greater mental health awareness, I wanted to highlight the ironic dichotomy we see in reproductive psychiatry today. Namely, although we have many useful treatments available in the field to treat maternal psychiatric illness, there are barriers to accessing mental healthcare that prevent women from receiving treatment and getting well.

Thinking back on the last few years from the other side of the pandemic, when COVID concerns turned the experience of motherhood on its side in so many ways, we can only acknowledge that it is an important time in the field of reproductive psychiatry. We have seen not only the development of new pharmacologic (neurosteroids) and nonpharmacologic therapies (transcranial magnetic stimulation, cognitive-behavioral therapy for perinatal depression), but also the focus on new digital apps for perinatal depression that may be scalable and that may help bridge the voids in access to effective treatment from the most rural to the most urban settings.

In a previous column, I wrote about the potential difficulties of identifying at-risk women with postpartum psychiatric illness, particularly within the context of disparate data collection methods and management of data. Hospital systems that favor paper screening methods rather than digital platforms pose special problems. I also noted an even larger concern: namely, once screened, it can be very challenging to engage women with postpartum depression in treatment, and women may ultimately not navigate to care for a variety of reasons. These components are but one part of the so-called “perinatal treatment cascade.” When we look at access to care, patients would ideally move from depression screening as an example and, following endorsement of significant symptoms, would receive a referral, which would result in the patient being seen, followed up, and getting well. But that is not what is happening.

A recent preliminary study published as a short communication in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health highlighted this issue. The authors used the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) to follow symptoms of depression in 145 pregnant women in ob.gyn. services, and found that there were low levels of adherence to psychiatric screenings and referrals in the perinatal period. Another study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found 30.8% of women with postpartum depression were identified clinically, 15.8% received treatment, and 3.2% achieved remission. That is the gulf, in 2024, that we have not managed to bridge.

The findings show the difficulty women experience accessing perinatal mental health resources. While we’ve known for a long time that the “perinatal treatment cascade” is real, what we don’t understand are the variables in the mix, particularly for patients in marginalized groups. We also do not know where women fall off the curve with regard to accessing care. In my mind, if we’re going to make a difference, we need to know the answer to that question.

Part of the issue is that the research into understanding why women fall off the curve is incomplete. You cannot simply hand a sheet to a woman with an EPDS score of 12 who’s depressed and has a newborn and expect her to navigate to care. What we should really be doing is investing in care navigation for women.

The situation is analogous to diagnosing and treating cardiac abnormalities in a catheterization laboratory. If a patient has a blocked coronary artery and needs a stent, then they need to go to the cath lab. We haven’t yet figured out the process in reproductive psychiatry to optimize the likelihood that patients will be screened and then referred to receive the best available treatment.

Some of our ob.gyn. colleagues have been working to improve access to perinatal mental health services, such as offering on-site services, and offering training and services to patients and providers on screening, assessment, and treatment. At the Center for Women’s Mental Health, we are conducting the Screening and Treatment Enhancement for Postpartum Depression study, which is a universal screening and referral program for women at our center. While some progress is being made, there are still far too many women who are falling through the cracks and not receiving the care they need.

It is both ironic and sad that the growing number of available treatments in reproductive psychiatry are scalable, yet we haven’t figured out how to facilitate access to care. While we should be excited about new treatments, we also need to take the time to understand what the barriers are for at-risk women accessing mental healthcare in the postpartum period.

Dr. Cohen is the director of the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) 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. STEPS for PPD is funded by the Marriott Foundation. Full disclosure information for Dr. Cohen is available at womensmentalhealth.org. Email Dr. Cohen at obnews@mdedge.com.

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