Dr. Lee S. Cohen, Director of the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, recently shared his insights on the practice of reproductive psychiatry amidst the COVID-19 pandemic with Ob.Gyn News on January 21, 2021

Across this period of the pandemic, we’ve spent considerable attention focusing on adaptations to clinical care for pregnant and postpartum women across the board. From the start, this has included a shift to telemedicine for the majority of our patients who come to see us with psychiatric disorders either before, during, or after pregnancy.

Specific issues for perinatal patients since the early days of COVID-19 have included the shifts in women’s plans with respect to delivery as well as the limitation on women’s ability to configure the types of support that they had originally planned on with family, friends, and others during delivery. Telemedicine again helped, at least in part, to fill that void by having online digital support by individuals or groups for both pregnant and postpartum women. These supports were always available, but quickly scaled up during the first 6-9 months of the pandemic and have likely seen their greatest increase in participation in the history of support groups for pregnant and postpartum women.

Similarly, at our own center, we have seen a dramatic increase across the last 10 months in requests for consultation by women with psychiatric disorders who have hopes and plans to conceive, to those who are pregnant or post partum and who are trying to sustain emotional well-being despite the added burden of the pandemic. As we heard similar stories regarding interactions with perinatal patients from reproductive psychiatrists across the country, my colleagues and I had to set up an additional resource, Virtual Rounds at the Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, which has been mentioned in previous columns, which has only grown during the last 6 months of the pandemic. We have colleagues across the country joining us from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays after our own faculty rounds, where we perform case reviews of our own patients, and invite our colleagues to share cases that are then reviewed with expert panelists together with our own faculty in a collaborative environment. Feedback from the community of clinicians has indicated that these virtual rounds have been invaluable to their efforts in taking care of women with perinatal psychiatric issues, particularly during the pandemic.

Of particular note during consultations on our service is the number of women coming to see us for questions about the reproductive safety of the medications on which they are maintained. Hundreds of women present to the center each year for the most up-to-date information regarding the reproductive safety of the most commonly used psychiatric medications in reproductive-age women, including antidepressants (SSRIs, serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor), mood stabilizers, lithium, lamotrigine, and atypical antipsychotics, as well as other medicines used to treat symptoms that have been a particular issue during the pandemic, such as insomnia and anxiety (benzodiazepines, nonbenzodiazepines, sedative hypnotics, and medicines such as gabapentin).

While consultation regarding risk of fetal exposure to psychotropics has been the cornerstone of our clinical work for 25 years, it has taken on a particularly critical dimension during the pandemic given the wish that women stay euthymic during the pandemic to limit the possibility of patients needing to present in a clinical space that would increase their risk for COVID-19, and to also minimize their risk for postpartum depression. (Psychiatric disorder during pregnancy remains the strongest predictor of emergence or worsening of underlying illness during the postpartum period.)

It is also noteworthy that, during a pandemic year, publications in reproductive psychiatry have been numerous, and we continue to make an effort at our own center to keep up with this and to share with our colleagues our impression of that literature using the weekly blog at womensmentalhealth.org. Last year brought the largest audience to the blog and visits to womensmentalhealth.org in the history of our center.

A case recently at our center presents a unique opportunity to review a confusing question in reproductive psychiatry over the last 15 years. A woman with a longstanding history of mixed anxiety and depression recently came to see us on a regimen of escitalopram and low-dose benzodiazepine. She was doing well, and she and her husband of 4 years were hopeful about starting to try to conceive despite the pandemic. We reviewed the reproductive safety data of the medicines on which she was maintained and made plans to follow-up as her plans galvanized. She notified me several months later that she had become pregnant but had experienced an early miscarriage. The patient was obviously upset and, as she reflected on her decision to maintain treatment with SSRI during her attempts to conceive and across a very early pregnancy, she queried about the extent to which her SSRI use might have contributed to her miscarriage.

The question about the possible association of antidepressant use during pregnancy and increased risk for miscarriage goes back at least 15 years when there were reports of an increased risk of miscarriage in women taking SSRIs during pregnancy. In that early work, there was an apparent increase in miscarriage in women taking SSRIs relative to a control group, but the rate did not exceed the prevalence of miscarriage in the general population. Since those early reports, we are lucky to have had multiple investigators look very closely at this issue, including one meta-analysis of 11 studies done approximately 8 years ago that failed to show an increased risk of miscarriage in the setting of first trimester exposure to SSRIs.

What has been most problematic methodologically, however, has been the failure to account for the potential role of depression in models that predict risk. A subsequent large epidemiologic study from Denmark evaluating over a million women has looked at this question further. The authors found a slightly increased risk of spontaneous abortion associated with the use of antidepressants (12.0% in women with antidepressant exposure vs. 11.1% in women with no exposure). However, looking only at women with a diagnosis of depression, the adjusted risk ratio for spontaneous abortion after any antidepressant exposure was 1.00 (95% confidence interval, 0.80-1.24). Thus, the researchers concluded that exposure to depression – but not exposure to antidepressant – is associated with a slightly higher risk of miscarriage.

Even more recently, a follow-up study examining this question supports the large epidemiologic study by Kjaersgaard and colleagues. For most readers, this effectively answers this very important question for women about rates of miscarriage associated with fetal exposure to SSRIs.

For the patient who presented at the center, reassuring her with this information felt particularly good, especially within the context of the pandemic. After several months of trying to conceive, she again became pregnant and delivered without difficulty. What was palpable in that clinical scenario, as it relates to the practice of reproductive psychiatry during the pandemic, is the even-greater emotional valence that questions about using psychiatric medications during pregnancy has taken on across these past months. While attention and thoughtful consideration about the relative risks of using psychiatric medications during pregnancy should be standard clinical practice, the level of anxiety associated with decisions to sustain or to discontinue treatment during pregnancy seems to have increased for some patients during the pandemic.

Even as the COVID-19 vaccine initiative across the United States is rolled out, 2021 will continue to be a complicated time for women and families. We still need to be vigilant. In addition to screening for perinatal depression during pregnancy and the postpartum period, we should be equally mindful of screening and treating perinatal anxiety, particularly during this challenging time. The challenge to keep pregnant and postpartum women well is perhaps even greater now, 10 months into the pandemic, than it was when we were in crisis mode in March 2020. As clinicians, we need to mobilize the spectrum of both pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic treatment options to sustain emotional well-being among women planning to conceive as well as those who are pregnant or postpartum as we navigate our way to safer times.

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.

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.

Related Posts