Because pregnant and postpartum women face unique challenges in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, they may be at increased risk for mental health problems in this setting. In a recent study, researchers from the University College of London surveyed 162 new mothers in London between May and June 2020 using a social network survey designed to assess the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Almost half (47.5 percent) of women with babies less than six months of age had depressive symptoms suggestive of postpartum depression assessed using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. This is a huge increase in the expected prevalence of postpartum depression; studies carried out prior to the pandemic have shown that about 10% to 15% of women report depressive symptoms during the postpartum period.
The researchers also observed that the more contact new mothers had with other people — whether remotely or face-to-face — the less likely they were to report depressive symptoms. While this finding suggests that social isolation incurred as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown may have increased risk for depression, another interpretation is that women with greater social networks are less vulnerable to depression (whether or not there is a lockdown). However you interpret the data, multiple studies have demonstrated that social isolation is a risk factor for depression, in general, and having adequate social support reduces the risk for postpartum depression.
We often encourage new mothers to bolster their support networks and often recommend new moms groups. While this is a reasonable approach to managing the social isolation of new parenthood, many new mothers struggle to get out of the house and are unable to establish new social networks. One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been increased access to support groups on virtual platforms. For example, Postpartum Support International or PSI now offers a wide array of online group meetings for women who are pregnant or postpartum. Whether or not a lockdown is in effect, these social networks are so important to a new mother’s emotional well-being and may potentially decrease risk for psotatum illness.
Ruta Nonacs, MD PhD
Myers S and Emmott EH. Communication Across Maternal Social Networks During England’s First National Lockdown and Its Association With Postnatal Depressive Symptoms. Front Psychol, May 2021.
New mothers twice as likely to have postnatal depression in lockdown (UCL Press Release)