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Many Pregnant Women Struggle With Mental Health Amid Pandemic


Needless to say, pregnancy causes stress. Women want babies to be healthy and deliveries to be smooth. The pandemic places even more beyond their control. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Sarah Gill (ph) is 31 and nearly eight months pregnant with her second child. Until recently, she wasn't very worried.

SARAH GILL: I had a really easy first pregnancy, so I wasn't nervous at all. I was just on board for another easy pregnancy.

NEIGHMOND: But a few months ago, that changed.

GILL: This pandemic has become kind of an ever-present force in our life. It's something that's constantly at the forefront of my mind, whether I'm worrying about my health and safety, the health and safety of our family, of my son. It's something that I'm always thinking about now.

NEIGHMOND: Now she worries about her delivery and about the support she'll be able to have after the birth of her baby. And if she had to rate the level of her anxiety...

GILL: If my baseline is maybe a three or four, I would say I am at a seven or eight consistently.

NEIGHMOND: Stories like Gill's have pretty much become the norm these days, according to mental health counselor Meaghan Sherman, who works with Maven Clinic, which offers telehealth care for women nationwide. Sherman estimates 90% of Maven's mental health providers have seen a staggering increase in stress, anxiety and depression among their pregnant patients.

MEAGHAN SHERMAN: They're crying. They're sad. They're confused. They are having trouble sleeping. They're not eating the right things, or they're eating too much or not at all. You know, they're feeling just, like, so stressed that they're irritable and short and impatient with those around them.

NEIGHMOND: And like this woman, many of Sherman's patients are experiencing sadness over the loss of eagerly anticipated events, like a baby shower.

SHERMAN: Just being able to be around her family and celebrating this time that's supposed to be a really joyful time. Instead, it's everyone's, like, sheltering in place. No one can come see her. And she feels isolated and alone.

NEIGHMOND: Grief, sadness and mood disorders, like anxiety and depression, are normally experienced by 1 in 5 pregnant women, says Maven Clinic medical director Dr. Jane van Dis. But today, she says, it's more like 5 out of 5 pregnant women. And that can lead to complications.

JANE VAN DIS: We know that untreated perinatal, maternal anxiety, mood and depressive disorders can be associated with a small increase risk of spontaneous miscarriage, as well as preterm birth and even low birth weight babies.

NEIGHMOND: Once the baby's born, there can be other problems.

VAN DIS: Difficulties with breastfeeding, as well as neonatal outcomes for the baby around nutrition and weight gain and neuro behavioral aspects of neonatal development.

NEIGHMOND: To try to reduce stress among pregnant patients, mental health counselor Sherman helps them normalize feelings of being overwhelmed because, of course, the pandemic is a high stress situation. And they're certainly not alone, she tells them, and that can be comforting. And remember, there is some reassuring news when it comes to susceptibility to the coronavirus. OB-GYN Laura Riley is spokesperson for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

LAURA RILEY: The little bit of data that we have available does not seem like pregnant women are at greater risk than non-pregnant women. But that doesn't mean pregnant women won't get sick. They get sick just like everybody else in the population.

NEIGHMOND: And if they do get sick, it doesn't seem that pregnant women are at any greater risk for severe complications. But Riley cautions that if pregnant women have underlying medical conditions, like obesity, diabetes or kidney disease, like anyone else with these health problems, they are at greater risk for complications. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.