Dr. Lee S. Cohen, Director of the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, recently shared his insights on practicing perinatal psychiatry during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic with Ob.Gyn News on November 23rd, 2021.

For the last 25 years, my colleagues have spent midday on Wednesdays at clinical rounds as a group – a time spent reviewing cases in perinatal psychiatry and important new scientific findings in the literature that inform patient care. At the start of the pandemic, my colleague Marlene Freeman, MD, and I started Virtual Rounds at the Center for Women’s Mental Health to open our rounds to colleagues involved in multiple aspects of perinatal psychiatric care.In my last column of 2021, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on some of what we have learned from 19 months of virtual rounding as a community of clinicians during the pandemic.


Telemedicine allows us to see into the homes, relationships, and environments of our pregnant and postpartum women in a way we could never have imagined. It’s an opportunity to follow patients closely and intervene sooner rather than later, which might have been constrained by pre–COVID-19 typical scheduled office appointments. Telemedicine also gives us a clearer sense of some of the issues faced by underserved and marginalized populations of patients as we look to increase outreach to those groups.

COVID-19 vaccines in pregnancy

We now know much more about the potential for COVID-19 to cause complications during pregnancy than we did earlier in the pandemic. Although there may be a variety of factors fueling whether those in the general population decide to get vaccinated or not, there is no ambiguity in the message from our colleagues in obstetrics about the importance of vaccination for pregnant and postpartum women.

Bipolar disorder

Appropriate treatment for the spectrum of subtypes of bipolar disorder during pregnancy in the postpartum period is a frequent topic of discussion that colleagues raise. The pandemic has kindled clinical worsening for women with mood and anxiety disorders presumably driven by a host of factors ranging from shifts in medication adherence to sleep dysregulation to name just a few. Bipolar II disorder is underdiagnosed, yet there’s a growing appreciation of the morbidity associated with this subtype of bipolar disorder, which probably equals that of other groups on the bipolar spectrum such as those with bipolar I disorder.

Sustaining emotional well-being for bipolar women during pregnancy has never been more important than during the pandemic since psychiatric illness during pregnancy is the strongest predictor of risk for postpartum psychiatric disorder and the literature demonstrates that bipolar women are at particular risk for postpartum mood disorder. Historically, treatment of bipolar disorder during pregnancy was particularly problematic for clinicians and patients deciding about potential use of pharmacotherapy because options were finite; some treatments were known teratogens (valproate and to a far less extent lithium) and other newer treatments for bipolar disorder had sparse reproductive safety data (second-generation antipsychotics).

The message today is we have tools to safely treat bipolar disorder during pregnancy and the postpartum period not available 10 years ago. Lithium is likely underused and can be safely used during pregnancy; we have vast data on the effectiveness of lithium in bipolar disorder. Clinicians should also know that lamotrigine is safe to use for pregnant women with bipolar disorder and the data show no increased risk for major malformations associated with first trimester exposure. In the case of atypical antipsychotics, which increasingly are used in the treatment of bipolar disorder, the take-home message is our comfort level using these medicines during pregnancy is growing given more data supporting that atypical antipsychotics are not major teratogens.

We’ve also learned polytherapy is the rule, not the exception. As my colleague Adele Viguera, MD, recently referenced in Virtual Rounds: Polytherapy is a small price to pay when the other side is sustaining euthymia in bipolar disorder.

What we’ve learned about treating perinatal mood disorder is it takes a village of clinicians and resources to treat and mitigate risk for recurrence. Nothing is more important than either ensuring or recapturing maternal euthymia. The flip side is a recent report that maternal self-harm/suicide is the leading cause of death in the first year postpartum. It is a charge to the medical community at large to screen for maternal psychiatric illness and, more importantly, to refer patients and ensure they receive adequate care during the postpartum period.


Anxiety and insomnia have been prevalent during the pandemic. Pregnancy-associated and postpartum anxiety have been underappreciated in lieu of focusing on perinatal depression, and we lack consensus regarding the most appropriate treatment of perinatal anxiety. Nonpharmacologic interventions have been extremely helpful for women whose anxiety is mild to moderate or as an adjunct to pharmacologic intervention for patients with more severe anxiety disorders.

Robust data on untreated anxiety during pregnancy suggest it leads to adverse outcomes. The reproductive safety rules above for depression also apply for anxiety. Here, we find a multimodal approach, both nonpharmacologic and pharmacologic, optimizes treatment for that population.

Clinicians have asked about other medicines many women take to treat anxiety including gabapentin, hydroxyzine, and benzodiazepines. Because of concerns about dependence and about using benzodiazepines during pregnancy, hydroxyzine is frequently used despite sparse reproductive safety data. Data on the effectiveness of hydroxyzine is even smaller and tends to be incomplete for patients with more moderate to severe anxiety.

Our comfort level in our center is greater for using benzodiazepines in patients who are clearly not at risk for substance use disorder because particularly when used with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, we find it optimizes treatment, mitigates symptoms, and attenuates suffering.


For insomnia, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) has the most data for effectiveness. Pharmacologic interventions such as gabapentin and benzodiazepines are also frequently used as therapies for insomnia.

Concern about treating insomnia by perinatal psychiatrists comes from the knowledge that insomnia is so often comorbid with anxiety and depression. Psychiatrists must consider the possibility that complaints of insomnia are part of an underlying mood or anxiety disorder; it would be unfortunate to miss the underlying illness and only treat just symptoms of insomnia. That being said, circumscribed insomnia is not uncommon during pregnancy and needs to be managed accordingly.

Postpartum psychosis

It’s been noteworthy the extent to which rare cases of postpartum psychosis have been presented in our Virtual Round meetings during the pandemic. As discussed previously, postpartum psychosis is one of the most serious illnesses we treat in reproductive psychiatry.

The debate as to whether postpartum psychosis is a discrete circumscribed illness or an illness that recurs over time won’t be answered without better longitudinal data. What we can say is there is no role, particularly during the pandemic, for outpatient management of postpartum psychosis. The waxing and waning of psychotic symptoms, while reassuring when patients are compensated, are of great concern when patients are psychotic and not in a safe environment.

While there are no consensus guidelines for postpartum psychosis treatment, the data support use of agents such as lithium. Growing data exist on the use of atypical antipsychotics to ameliorate psychotic symptoms and get patients functioning as quickly as possible. Resolution of postpartum psychosis may take a considerable amount of time. During the pandemic, it is critical that appropriate resources be managed before patients leave the hospital, including support by family, open communication with community-based providers, and support groups.

Nineteen months into the pandemic, it seems we’ve learned much: how to leverage technology like telemedicine, and the upsides of folding in our multidisciplinary colleagues to reduce barriers around collaboration and learn from one another to provide the best care for our shared patients.


Dr. Cohen is the director of the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, 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 Dr. Cohen at obnews@mdedge.com.

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