The impact of the pandemic on postpartum mental health
Over the course of the pandemic parents have taken on a lot to keep their families safe, and access to support systems, like friends and extended family, were constrained. Homes became classrooms and daycare facilities, occupied 24/7. Families were limited to where they could go or who they could see. These drastic changes have had serious consequences on the mental health of parents, particularly mothers.
While there has been, and continues to be, a lot of discussion in the media and elsewhere about the emotional and mental health impacts of COVID-19, a team lead by Women’s College Hospital’s Dr. Simone Vigod, has shown just how substantial this impact is.
In June 2021, Dr. Simone Vigod, chief of psychiatry and senior scientist at Women’s College Hospital and senior adjunct scientist at ICES released a population-based study looking at the clinical burden of postpartum mental illness during the pandemic. This study, a first of its kind, showed that during the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic postpartum mental health visits across Ontario were 30 per cent higher than expected by pre-pandemic rates. Anxiety, depression and alcohol and substance use disorders drove the elevated visit numbers, most notably for people who were in their first 90 days postpartum.
The research found that newly delivered people, in their first 90 days postpartum, were disproportionately impacted as they frequently rely on family, friends and other networks for support, which were less accessible.
It was also discovered that those living in lower income areas had the smallest visit rate increase. This is particularly concerning as this segment of the population has been most heavily affected by the pandemic.
“Virtual care has increased substantially in the past year, and many family physician and psychiatrist visits have moved to telephone or video,” Vigod said. “Postpartum, those who are lower income may have difficulty affording the required technology for a virtual visit, they may not be able to find a private space for visits and they may be unable to attend “live” appointments if they are essential workers. And while physician visits are covered by OHIP, prescription medication and non-physician services, like psychotherapy services delivered in the community by non-physicians, are not.”
Moving forward through the pandemic it’s important that health systems focus on postpartum people from high-risk groups, monitor wait lists for care and explore creative solutions to expand system capacity. It’s time to take action.