Pregnant and postpartum women are already at a high risk of depression and anxiety. In fact, one in seven women struggle with symptoms before and after giving birth, according to past research.
But the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating those struggles, according to a recent study.
Published in Frontiers in Global Women’s Health, the new study found that the likelihood of maternal depression and anxiety has substantially increased during the COVID-19 health crisis.
“The social and physical isolation measures that are critically needed to reduce the spread of the virus are taking a toll on the physical and mental health of many of us,” said Dr. Margie Davenport of the University of Alberta in Canada, who co-authored the study.
For new moms, those stresses come with side effects, she noted.
“We know that experiencing depression and anxiety during pregnancy and the postpartum period can have detrimental effects on the mental and physical health of both mother and baby that can persist for years,” she said.
Those effects can include premature delivery, reduced mother-infant bonding, and developmental delays in infants, she explained.
For the new study, researchers surveyed 900 women, including 520 who were pregnant and 380 who had given birth in the past year. The researcher team asked about the women’s depression and anxiety symptoms before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the pandemic began, 29 percent of the women experienced moderate to high anxiety symptoms, while 15 percent experienced depressive symptoms, according to the study’s findings.
During the pandemic, those numbers increased substantially — 72 percent experienced anxiety and 41 percent experienced depression, the researchers reported.
Because lockdown measures affected daily routines and access to gyms, researchers also asked women whether their exercise habits had changed.
Of the women surveyed, 64 percent reduced their physical activity since the pandemic began, while 15 percent increased their physical activity. The remaining 21 percent experienced no change, the study found.
Exercise is a known way to ease depression symptoms, so limited physical activity may result in a rise in depressive symptoms, the researchers noted.
In fact, the study found that women who engaged in at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week had significantly lower symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The findings are somewhat limited given the fact that researchers could not survey women before the pandemic began, since they could not know a pandemic would occur. That meant the women surveyed could only offer their pre-pandemic symptoms in hindsight.
Also, while the researchers asked women about their symptoms using validated measures, only mental health care professionals can validly diagnose an individual with depression or anxiety, they note.
The study was specifically interested in the impact of COVID-19 on new moms, but Davenport said maternal mental health is a critical issue no matter the time.
“Even when we are not in a global pandemic, many pregnant and postpartum women frequently feel isolated, whether due to being hospitalized, not having family or friends around, or other reasons,” she said.”It is critical to increase awareness of the impact of social and physical isolation on the mental health of pregnant and postpartum women.”
Increased awareness makes diagnosis and treatment — the ultimate goal — more likely, she concluded.