Amid COVID-19, new mothers are facing yet another health crisis: Depression and anxiety.
Since lockdowns began in March 2020, unprecedented numbers of pregnant people and new mothers have struggled to manage their mental health. Rates of depression in the group have increased by 15 to 20 percent, according to research conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The study found that 36 percent of pregnant and postpartum women reported significant levels of depression, while pre-pandemic rates of perinatal depression were 15 to 20 percent. What’s more, one in five new mothers reported significant levels of generalized anxiety, while over 10 percent reported experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
While significant, these findings alone may not paint the whole picture, according to study author Cindy Liu, Ph.D., of Brigham’s Departments of Pediatric Newborn Medicine and Psychiatry. “People who are working from home, who have maternity leave, or who simply have the time to do a survey like this are disproportionately white and well-off,” she said. “That is a limitation to this work….We are missing the perspectives of various important segments of the population.”
Additional research published in The Lancet found that 31 to 35 percent of mothers in Canada are experiencing depression and anxiety, and IGNITE, a collaborative research group of Lifespan Brain Institute (LiBi) and Penn’s Maternal and Child Health Research Center, has embarked on similar scientific inquiry. The data is still being collected and analyzed, but specific groups like Black and Latinx women are significantly more affected than others, says Dr. Wanjiku F.M. Njoroge, M.D., Medical Director of the Young Child Clinic and Program Director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship at Penn.
“Black women specifically had higher rates of depression and anxiety, and they also had different COVID-19-specific worries when compared to…white women,” Njoroge told WHYY. “Black mothers were more likely to worry about their job security, the lasting impacts of COVID-19, pre- and postnatal care, and physically giving birth.”
Considering the vast racial and ethnic disparities in maternal healthcare to begin with, these concerns are valid. Black mothers are more than three times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than white mothers, for example, and are often not believed when it comes to experiencing pain. These systemic patterns that have persisted in healthcare for centuries, and a global pandemic surely won’t ease any worries.
Clearly, mothers across the globe are facing a mental health crisis — and it comes at a time when they’re already in an especially vulnerable state.
“If we are already operating at or beyond our capacity, we get pushed too far. Pregnancy and parenting young children are among the most demanding periods in life,” Dr. Cleopatra Kamperveen, Ph.D., Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of The Fertility & Pregnancy Institute, tells SheKnows. “It is no surprise, then, that the pandemic—with the financial pressures, social isolation, and increasing childcare demands it brings—has pushed so many families beyond their limits.”
Dr. Akua K. Boateng, Ph.D, a licensed psychotherapist in Philadelphia, PA, concurs. “New parents are prone to experience some degree of ‘the blues’ post pregnancy,” she says. “But the pandemic has created a new norm. Some new parents are experiencing lows in mood or anxiety around maintaining their work schedule while adjusting to a new baby. Work, school, and new baby are all in one place. It is hard to recover when you don’t have a place to do this.”
Emily Guarnotta, a clinical psychologist in Merrick, N.Y., adds that when postpartum depression already affects around one in seven new mothers, a global pandemic is likely to increase the number of cases.
Guarnotta is also in the unique position to have observed this maternal mental health phenomenon both in her practice and in her personal life. “I gave birth to my second child in October  and it was a vastly different birth experience than my first child, who was born pre-pandemic,” she says. “COVID has robbed families of having the experience of seeing their first sonogram together, having baby showers and other celebrations.”
But one of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic for mothers is the isolation.
“New parents would normally be surrounded by their friends, family, and supportive practitioners,” Dr. Karen Aronian, Ed.D., a parenting and education expert, says. “Due to the pandemic, to-be and new parents have had to enter into pregnancy and parenting by coping socially distant and/or isolating. It has left many individuals and couples new to pregnancy and parenting unsure and bereft.”
“Isolation cut me off from a lot of support. Feelings of loneliness got worse, which is one of my depression triggers.”
Such was the case for Quiana Glide, a writer in Kalamazoo, Mich., who struggled with depression prior to the pandemic and her pregnancy.
“After giving birth, [postpartum depression] was very difficult to deal with,” she says. “When I was ready to start attending support groups, the pandemic happened, and made those impossible to attend. Isolation cut me off from a lot of support. Feelings of loneliness got worse, which is one of my depression triggers.”
She also feels “guilty” for not being able to be more with or for her daughter. “I feel like I’m grieving a lot of baby and toddler milestones.”
Silvia Pittman, a writer living in Panama City Beach, Fla., feels similarly. “[The pandemic] has taken away many of the experiences I envisioned having as a mom, like going to classes at the library, frequenting the playground, traveling, and showing him the world,” she says. “I feel robbed.”
Pittman also struggles with anxiety regarding her son’s health. “When I take him to the park, I find myself pulling him away from kids he so desperately wants to connect with,” she admits. “It really breaks my heart. A few times I’ve let him play and I spend the next two weeks obsessing about whether he got sick.”
Cassandra Wronka of Alexandria, Minn is also struggling with anxiety, which she’s never experienced before. Since having her son in March 2020, however, her anxious thoughts have skyrocketed. “I have anxiety that someone is going to break into our home and take my son,” she reveals. “I have a fear that my son will not be ‘normal’ because he has been quarantined his whole life and isn’t used to being around other people or kids so when he is he’s not sure how to act or isn’t sure what to do.”
Jordan Corcoran, founder of mental health organization Listen, Lucy, currently has a 21-month-old and is pregnant with her second as well. She too has been struggling — both with getting work done at home, and feeling immense guilt for being unable to give her son a “normal” life.
“Working from home with a very active toddler is impossible. I can’t look at my computer for more than one minute without having to worry he is going to get into something that could hurt him,” she says. “It’s not how I envisioned parenting.”
“I kept reminding myself that all that matters is that we are safe and healthy and that our families are safe and healthy. But, it was still sad.”
Like Pittman, Corcoran has recently started going to the park — and what should be a cause for celebration sometimes makes her feel worse. “[My son] loves being near other kids,” she says. “He can’t believe how much fun there is to be had in the world. It breaks my heart that he hasn’t been able to play much with other kids.”
And like many other mothers, Corcoran is grieving the loss of traditional, celebratory milestones. “My son’s first birthday party was not what I envisioned and, if I am being honest, I cried over it more than once,” she admits. “I kept reminding myself that all that matters is that we are safe and healthy and that our families are safe and healthy. But, it was still sad.”
And then, of course, there are now more concerns around giving birth.
“We require a group to bring a child into the world. The phrase that ‘it takes a village’ is so true, both in birth and in raising a family. Covid has taken our village away.”
“It’s been a bit terrifying, frankly,” Jana Studelska, a Certified Professional Midwife (CPM) in St. Paul, Minn., says of the birthing process amid COVID. “Doulas have been prevented from attending births, for example, and who in their right mind wants to go to a hospital in a pandemic? It’s counter-intuitive, especially when you’re trying so hard to keep your family healthy as you prepare for a new little human.”
Guarnotta agrees, adding that women with whom she works have reported feeling lonely and that their birthing experiences are scarier, “since they have also had to worry about the possibility of contracting COVID in the hospital.”
Atop the very real concerns regarding contracting COVID, Studelska reiterates that the post-birth isolation has a significant impact on new parents’ mental well-being. “Human beings are social birthers. We’re not like cats or horses, where we desire isolation and are best left alone,” she says. “We require a group to bring a child into the world. The phrase that ‘it takes a village’ is so true, both in birth and in raising a family. Covid has taken our village away.”
“The childbearing year, particularly for first-time parents and grandparents, is such an important milestone,” she concludes. “To move through this transformative year with no party or cake or even hugs? It’s excruciating for everyone.”