Telehealth and Maternal Mental Health Needs
Two recent studies show telehealth can help new and expectant mothers.
April 30, 2021
Telehealth measures decreased prenatal distress, pregnancy-related anxiety, and postpartum depression.
Telemedicine has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. According to The New York Times, just short of May 2020, the Johns Hopkins neurology department was seeing 95 percent of patients virtually. The rise in telemedicine to address maternal mental health has also seen unprecedented growth during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Mental Health America states that the mental health needs of Americans have skyrocketed. Anxiety and depression screenings increased nearly four-fold in 2020, from nearly 2,000 screenings per day to roughly 8,000 per day. Women, and in particular pregnant women, are vulnerable to hormonal fluctuations that make them twice as likely to experience depression during their lifetime compared to men.
Research in the past year and a half has shown that telehealth can be substantially as effective as in-person care. (Telehealth, more encompassing than telemedicine but inclusive of it, may include only educational components.) With respect to maternal mental health, there are two studies highlighted herein that demonstrate telehealth's promise when it comes to improving maternal mental health in terms of prenatal distress, pregnancy-related anxiety, and the postpartum period. Of note, one of the studies was conducted prior March 11, 2020, or the official start of the pandemic, which makes it non-COVID-19 related.
Maternal mental health, or perinatal mental health, is defined by the Maternal Health Task Force as a woman’s mental health during pregnancy and in the postpartum period. The significance of this period is multifold. It includes increased risk of the following: preterm delivery, low birth weight, impaired postnatal infant growth, insecure infant-mother attachments, and suboptimal breastfeeding practices.
The first study published in Midwifery in 2021 supports the use of tele-education in improving prenatal distress and pregnancy-related anxiety. Specifically, the Midwifery study showed that “tele-education offered to the pregnant women on pregnancy and birth planning during COVID-19 decreased their prenatal distress and anxiety levels.” What the pregnant women received were phone calls, text messages, and a digital education pdf file, all of which educated women on a variety of topics, including “general methods of protection from coronavirus, coronavirus prevention methods during pregnancy, coronavirus and delivery process, measures to be taken during the coronavirus pandemic and postpartum process, measures to be taken during the coronavirus pandemic and breastfeeding, and how to manage stress, anxiety, and depression in these processes.” The tele-education included a digital pdf file called the “Booklet for Pregnancy and Birth Planning Education during Coronavirus (COVID-19).” All the of the educational content was developed with suggestions from medical and public health experts.
A major takeaway from the above Midwifery study is that tele-education is effective in reducing the fears pregnant women have about giving birth as well as about their babies’ health in the context of a pandemic; in summary, prenatal distress and pregnancy-related anxiety were significantly decreased (p-value <0.05). Significantly lower scores on pregnancy-related anxiety questionnaires developed by van den Bergh (1990) and revised by Huizink et al. (2016) demonstrated the effective role played by tele-education.
The second study published in Midwifery in 2021 supports the use of telemedicine interventions in treating postpartum depression symptoms. While the study’s timeframe was not during COVID, the results are helpful in understanding the beneficial role telemedicine has played in the past couple of years. Previous research has shown it can be a challenge for postpartum women to seek care for the “baby blues” or depressive symptoms, either of which could be significant. This may be due to perceived stigma, time, financial constraints, transportation, or childcare concerns. In this study, the telemedicine modalities included: telephone support, mobile applications, social media, and websites. This meta-analysis reviewed at least seven randomized controlled trials that largely used cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or psychoeducation to help pregnant women participants. The second Midwifery study concluded that telemedicine interventions “significantly decreased postpartum depression symptoms” and “demonstrated feasibility and acceptability among mothers in the postnatal period.”
A major takeaway from the second Midwifery study is that telemedicine appears to be “promising in preventing and improving postpartum depression.” Of note, the study looked at women without a history of mental health conditions. Meanwhile, Hanach et al. highlight the need for larger-scale, future research to figure out the structure, content, and type of providers recommended within future telemedicine interventions.
In conclusion, the benefits of telehealth—especially during COVID-19—appear to help women in the prenatal and postpartum phases of pregnancy. While the research is still growing, and quite limited, such positive signs are helpful in understanding the role that technology can play in addressing maternal mental health needs. Future studies that reflect on the benefits of telehealth are vital and will be particularly useful in supporting new and expectant mothers, especially in times of adversity.