Pandemic has taken its toll on pregnant women’s mental health, study says

Jean-Benoit Legault, The Canadian Press

MONTREAL — The mental health of pregnant women has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, warns a Montreal-based part of the international CONCEPTION study.

The impact of the pandemic is even greater than that of other historical crises, such as the ice storm of 1998 or the Zika virus crisis, warns Anick Bérard, researcher at CHU Sainte-Justine and full professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Montreal.

She and her colleagues found that 23% of pregnant or postpartum women suffered from severe depressive symptoms. In nearly 40% of these women, the severity of symptoms ranged from moderate to severe, and they were particularly associated with anxiety and stress.

While very few people overall were infected with SARS-CoV-2, all of them had to deal with the effects of the pandemic, such as sanitation measures that sometimes varied from week to week, Professor Berard recalled.

A frightening impact on the population in general, and on specific populations such as pregnant women, was therefore foreseeable, if we were to rely on the impact of previous crises.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of pregnant women is twice that of the ice storm than the wildfires in Alberta,” she illustrated. †

But unlike the ice storm – which hit only a few regions of Quebec, lasted only about thirty days and in which we didn’t have to fear being infected by our neighbor – the pandemic affects everyone and we are confronted with a highly contagious virus. .

According to the study, of the three waves of the pandemic analyzed, it was the second (between December 2020 and April 2021) that had the greatest impact on the mental health of pregnant women.

“When we got back into the bath at the very beginning, when we closed everything here in Quebec, on March 13, 2020, everyone was afraid, we were afraid to leave the house,” recalls Professor Bérard. And also, there was no end in sight, because after the first wave we reopened in the summer (…), then suddenly Delta came and we went back to fully closed mode.

All resources of the health system have been diverted to the fight against the coronavirus. The follow-ups required by pregnant women were done either virtually or by phone. Some were reluctant to go to the hospital for an ultrasound for fear of being exposed to the virus. The restrictions imposed by the hospitals posed the threat that they would have to give birth alone, without their partner’s presence.

“About (a quarter) of our pregnant women or who have just given birth suffered from severe depressive symptoms (…) it is huge, and at the same time access to care was very limited, said Ms Bérard. † All that together is sure to make an explosive cocktail.

Depression, anxiety and stress in pregnant women are associated with the risk of preterm birth, lower birth weight and cognitive problems during childhood.

It will therefore be essential to follow these women and their babies for years to come in order to take the full measure that this crisis will have had on their health.

“We don’t want everyone to be scared, but the impact (of the pandemic) was twice that of the ice storm crisis, Ms Bérard reiterated. The last children of the ice storm have just turned 18 and there have been really obvious long-term effects, so we expect this to be at least double.”

More than 3,000 Canadian women were recruited for this study between June 2020 and August 2021 online and at selected obstetric clinics, including 2,574 pregnant women and 626 postpartum women.

Pregnant participants completed an online questionnaire twice, at the time of recruitment during pregnancy and two months after delivery. Women who had already given birth completed the questionnaire only once.

The results of this study were recently published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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