Perinatal distress during COVID-19

Monash University research has shown that new mothers, pregnant women or those planning a pregnancy are showing signs of distress during the early stages of COVID-19 due to the lack of specific and timely information about health and risk relevant to themselves and their family.

Using a leading Australian online support forum, a three-phase analysis found negative sentiment at 61.9 per cent from forum posts between January 27 and May 12, 2020. Women commonly used the terms 'worry', 'risk', 'concern' and 'anxiety' and were seeking peer support via online parenting forums as an information source in the absence of official information relevant to their unique circumstance.

The period in and around birth is a significant life phase for women that is associated with increased risk of adverse mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be exacerbating vulnerability in this population.

The study, led by Dr Cheryce Harrison and Dr Rhonda Garad and performed by PhD student Bonnie Chivers, from Monash University's School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, identified five emerging themes:

  • Heightened distress related to a high-risk external environment;
  • Despair and anticipatory grief due to deprivation of social and family support;
  • Altered family and support relationships;
  • Guilt tampered happiness and;
  • Family future postponed

Women expressed concerns around the lack of information on COVID-19 and the risks during pregnancy. Common questions asked were around the risks to their baby in utero, risks for new born babies, risks within the hospital environment, antenatal appointments and impacts to mental health from reduced social support.

Discussion around pregnancy and working, leaving the house and if working partners should isolate from their pregnant partners were all concerns that they sought information and confirmation from their peers within the forum.

Women close to giving birth also indicated they were considering a home birth. One woman stated that although she did not want to be ‘alarmist’, the lack of information on hospital safety made her feel ‘vulnerable’.

The perinatal period involves a major life transition requiring increased levels of social, emotional and health professional support.

“Health professionals need to understand that women have unique information needs particularly around risk and safety related to pregnancy and newborn health,” Dr Harrison said.

“Support needs of this population remain high and therefore in the presence of significant impacts to support networks we need to look at ways to meet those needs in a COVID-safe way.”

“Our results demonstrate pregnant women and new mothers are uniquely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of nuanced and timely information appears to have exacerbated the risk of psychological and psychosocial distress in this vulnerable group who demonstrate heightened distress, reduced social and emotional support, anticipatory grief, increasing inter-family conflicts and direct impacts on family planning behaviours,” Dr Harrison said.

Read the full paper in Journal of Medical Internet Research titled: Perinatal distress during COVID-19: a thematic analysis of an online parenting forum. DOI: 10.2196/22002

Wendy Smith
Media Monash University
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