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Pandemic isolation is leading to more postpartum depression, anxiety

"Everything that we tell postpartum women to do, like connect to other people, get out of the house, establish a routine, they can’t do that.”
/ Source: TODAY

After experiencing infertility for almost four years, Sarah and Brian Piett felt thrilled to welcome their new son, Brooks, on February 26. Soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed life. Now friends and family can’t meet the baby or offer to babysit. As the quarantine lingers, Sarah feels more listless, worried and frustrated.

“Our whole family has really been waiting for Brooks forever and have been on this journey with us. We finally have our baby and nobody can even see him,” the 29-year-old recovery room nurse from Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, told TODAY Parents. “I’ve cried a lot.”

After facing infertility for almost four years, the Pietts were excited to finally welcome a baby. But that feeling lessened as stay-at-home orders means Sarah feels isolated. Courtesy of the Piett family

Sarah struggled to breastfeed and a phone call with the lactation consultant made her feel guilty about pumping and supplementing with formula. She wishes she had a little more help around the house or could even go to a moms group or walk around a mall.

“I love my baby and I love holding him,” she said. “Sometimes you wish that somebody was here just to hold him for like five minutes to give you a break.”

At her six-week follow up appointment, she scored high on a diagnostic test for postpartum depression. Her doctor gave her a prescription and a therapist recommendation. She feels like being isolated is making her depression and anxiety more severe.

“It sounds so selfish but I keep thinking this isn’t the maternity leave I envisioned. I thought I’d be able to see friends and they’d be able to see my baby and enjoy him,” Piett said. “It just totally all around completely sucks.”

New mothers are at more risk for mental health consequences

Piett is not alone. Experts expect that stay-at-home orders and the ongoing pandemic will likely cause more new moms to experience depression, anxiety and mood disorders.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and all the things that we need to be doing around physical distancing are going to make the risk of maternal mental health complications greater. One of the primary reasons is that social support is so vital,” Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, director of the University of North Carolina Center for Women’s Mood Disorders, told TODAY Parents. “In addition, high levels of stress can have an adverse outcome on a woman's ability to navigate this time.”

Baby Brooks, born February 26, meets most of his family via video calls. While mom Sarah Piett talks often with friends and family she still struggles with postpartum depression and anxiety. Courtesy of the Piett family

In the past, parents with new babies could rely on friends and family to come over and hold the baby while mom showers. A relative might stay for weeks to help, or new parents could hire a "mother's helper" to get a break. But now this can’t happen. Stay-at-home orders and the fear of possibly spreading COVID-19 keep families with newborns isolated.

“Women have talked to me about anticipating their moms will be at the delivery or their moms are going to come over in the beginning and now with the quarantine they’re not having contact with their parents,” Rebecca Weinberg, a psychologist at the Alexis Joy D’Achille Center for Perinatal Mental Health at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh, told TODAY Parents. “That support is totally gone and that’s really detrimental.”

If moms and dads are home together and one parent is working, that means the other tackles the majority of childcare. It’s even tougher for single mothers.

“It’s the perfect storm because everything that we tell postpartum women to do, like connect to other people, get out of the house, establish a routine, they can’t do that,” Weinberg said. “It really does set women up to have a difficult time.”

Sarah Piett is a nurse at a local hospital. One of the things that fuels her anxiety is worrying that when she returns to work she could contract COVID-19 and spread it to her infant son. Courtesy of the Piett family

And highly emotional situations, such as war or a global pandemic, hurt everyone’s mental health.

“The fact that this is highly stressful, the fact that it’s so disruptive to people’s lives, is bound to have negative mental health consequences for the population at large,” Meltzer-Brody said. “We already seeing that particularly for our vulnerable populations like perinatal women.”

Symptoms and helping from a distance

Women with postpartum depression, anxiety and other disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic would experience the same symptoms women would experience at other times. Signs to look for include:

  • Crying or tearfulness
  • Feeling nervous
  • Acting unlike herself
  • Struggling to sleep
  • Losing appetite or stopping eating
  • Stopping engagement with the baby
  • Making odd or worrisome statements
  • Saying that she wants to harm herself or the baby

Therapists and psychiatrists are providing treatment via telemedicine so women can still access care, even if it looks different than usual. People seeking help can visit Postpartum Support International, which has a variety of resources. Friends and family should still try to support a new mom as much as possible, by calling or video chatting with them, having groceries delivered or dropping off something like diapers or a few meals.

“This may not be what you had in mind but we can assist (new moms),” Meltzer-Brody said. “We really need to work extremely hard to provide emotional support and connection to our new moms and their families during this really difficult time.”