Mental health supports needed for pregnant individuals during COVID-19 pandemic, study finds

Rebecca Bourdon is just weeks away from giving birth to her second child amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Second time during the pandemic and I’m 35 weeks currently, it’s been going pretty smoothly,” she said, noting it’s a different experience from her first pregnancy during the first wave of the pandemic.

“As the cases started to increase here in Canada, that’s when my anxiety started to really skyrocket.”

Bourdon said she is worried about contracting the virus, attending medical appointments alone, going into labour without her husband at her side, among other concerns.

Read more: ‘So much unknown’: Becoming a mother during a pandemic

“Being a first time mom and pregnant for the first time is already a very anxious situation so it was definitely exacerbated by the pandemic,” she said.

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A new study led by clinicians at Unity Health Toronto found 69 per cent of people pregnant during the COVID-19 pandemic experienced moderate to high levels of distress and 20 per cent had depressive symptoms.

The researchers surveyed nearly 1,500 participants online and 87 per cent of them are Canadian.

“We’re seeing all these different impacts on pregnant people and we really want to understand what the top concerns were so that we could best address them in clinical care and ensure that we’re providing support … and so that was really the impetus behind the study,” explained Women’s College Hospital perinatal psychiatrist Dr. Lucy Barker.

The study found the top five concerns during pregnancy were: hospital policies regarding support persons in labour, not being able to introduce their baby to loved ones, getting sick from COVID-19 while pregnant, not being able to rely on family or friends after labour for support and conflicting medical information on COVID-19 in pregnancy and newborns, especially early in the pandemic.

Read more: Coronavirus: Pregnant and sick with COVID-19 — visiting a hospital during the 2nd wave

“We know the newborn period is incredibly difficult and sometimes you can have a single parent or the partner needs to go back to work and there are limited people to turn to and so with COVID-19 restrictions, stay at home orders, there were limited people that families could turn to for support in the home,” said Dr. Tali Bogler, the study’s lead author and family physician and chair of family medicine obstetrics at Unity Health Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital.

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“This was incredibly difficult for people and had a huge impact on people’s mental health.”

After her son was born, Bourdon said she felt the effects of social isolation due to widespread lockdowns in Ontario.

“It was just a very isolating time for my family. Given that we’re here in Toronto and our family and friends are in a different city, we didn’t have that critical support that a lot of new parents or parents in general really need,” she said.

“We were able to Facetime to introduce our new child to our families, but we missed out on some of those really important moments.”

Bourdon, who is studying medicine, said she recognized the need to seek professional support.

Read more: Unvaccinated pregnant Alberta woman dies from COVID-related infection

“It’s definitely a hard step to maybe accept that you might be feeling overly anxious or depressed, especially because you’re already trying to be such a strong mother or parent for your child … but I think it’s just important to address it,” she said.

“It’s important for people to feel comfortable bringing it up with their health care providers and for health care providers to especially ask about it at those initial visits after giving birth.”

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Bourdon was able to access care virtually, which helped, she said, because she was home with a new baby.

The study authors recommend hospitals better utilize technology to help address concerns by arranging more virtual check-ins and provide more online resources with evidence-based information on COVID-19 relevant to expectant and new parents.

“One of the top things that pregnant individuals were the most upset about was that they didn’t have the typical preparation and support from the hospital prenatal classes. A lot of them did turn to virtual, not all, though. And it’s still hard to find virtual prenatal classes,” she said.

Read more: ‘Baby brain’ is real and could have long-term impacts. Should parents be worried?

Bogler said she is hopeful the study will lead to more innovative ways of providing increased perinatal support.

“With the perinatal population, it is such a unique, vulnerable population that we need to think sometimes differently about them … we do feel like the pregnant population is often this forgotten population and they need to be at the forefront when we’re making policy decisions, when we’re doing research,” she said.

As for Bourdon, who is just weeks away from becoming a mother of two, understanding her mental health needs, accessing care and feeling supported has made this second pregnancy much less stressful.

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“I do have more of that support now with this pregnancy because of the lifting of the lockdowns and because both of our families are vaccinated, they can come here and support us in that postpartum period and not feel like they’re putting us at risk or we don’t feel like we’re putting them at risk,” she said.

“It’s overall just a more comfortable experience. And my husband obviously has been able to attend ultrasounds this time, and he just feels more involved in the care of his child as well.”

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