The idea that postnatal depression actually lingers for years after a baby is just one of the many things we can learn from a recent study. Conducted by researchers at King’s College London, the study found that women who experience severe mood swings or prolonged periods of sadness actually have higher levels of depressive symptoms than those who only experienced milder forms.
Experts are calling for mothers to be screened for postnatal depression beyond the 12-month postpartum period after new research found high levels of depressive symptoms in mums long after welcoming their babies.
The findings come as a growing body of research also suggests that more mothers are at risk of experiencing perinatal depression and anxiety amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as screening rates plummet and risk factors for perinatal mental health, including family violence, isolation, and less access to practical and emotional support, increase.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, tracked almost 5,000 mothers in the US for three years. Researchers from the National Institute of Health assessed women’s symptoms at four months postpartum and then again at one, two, and three years postpartum.
The results highlight that if you’re a mama whose postnatal depression symptoms lingered well after blowing the candles out on your bub’s first birthday, then you’re not alone. One-quarter of mothers had elevated depressive symptoms in the three years after giving birth.
“Our study indicates that six months may not be long enough to gauge depressive symptoms,” said lead author Dr. Diane Putnick. “These long-term data are key to improving our understanding of mum’s mental health, which we know is critical to her child’s well-being and development.”
Women with underlying conditions such as mood disorders and/or gestational diabetes were more likely to have higher levels of depressive symptoms over the three years studied.
“Screening for maternal depression beyond the postpartum period may be warranted, particularly after mood and diabetic disorders,” the authors conclude.
Why repeated screening is important
Currently, the Australian Clinical Practice Guidelines for Mental Health Care in the Perinatal Period recommend that women are screened 6-12 weeks after birth, with a repeat screening at least once in the first year.
Dr. Nicole Highet, Founder and Executive Director of the Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) says the findings reinforce the importance of screening for perinatal mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and postnatal psychosis at numerous time points to ensure that vulnerable parents don’t fall through the gaps.
Dr. Higher says it’s particularly important this year as women and men transition to parenthood facing increased stress, pressure, and isolation amid the pandemic.
“It’s been a really difficult year for hopeful, expectant, and new parents with changes to IVF services, fewer antenatal visits, and less support during and after birth,” Dr. Highet says. “Women are telling us they’re not being screened as physical health often takes priority over mental health and demand for supports and services have skyrocketed.”
Help (and hope) is at hand
COPE has to lead the response to some of these challenges by expanding the capability of its world-leading digital screening tool scope to facilitate remote screening. This has enabled women to be screened for risk factors and perinatal mental health conditions from their own homes.
The organization has also just launched its national referral directory, e-COPE, which has been funded by the Commonwealth and is designed for health professionals and those seeking treatment for perinatal mental health conditions.
“It can be hard to know where to go for understanding, support, and guidance when it comes to getting help for emotional and mental health problems that can arise prior, during pregnancy, or in the first years after having a baby,” Dr. Highet says. “ Our e-COPE directory will help link families to support in their local area, including telehealth services which have been extended until next year.
The study found that 25% of mothers had elevated depressive symptoms in the three years after giving birth. Researchers recommend repeated screening for perinatal mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.