What to expect from prenatal mental health care (and the big reason you should try it)

According to the World Health Organization, about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth experience mood disorders, especially depression. And while we frequently hear about new mothers’ experiences with postpartum depression, there is less emphasis on perinatal depression—the umbrella term for the depression experienced before and after giving birth. 

Perinatal depression is a serious issue. It increases a woman’s chances of harming herself or her infant, can lead to a premature or low-weight birth, and can prevent a mother from properly bonding with or caring for her child. Fortunately, according to a new report from the United States Preventive Services Task Force, maternal counseling could help stave off perinatal depression and improve birth outcomes. In fact, the group’s study found that pregnant mothers who received a form of maternal counseling were 39% less likely to experience perinatal depression than women who didn’t receive any counseling.

The panel recommended counseling for women with risk factors such as a personal or family history of depression; traumatic experiences; recent stressful life changes; and other factors like coming from a low-income background or having an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy. And, according to The New York Times, because the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force made this recommendation, insurers will have to cover the cost of this kind of care without co-pays or deductibles. 

For those who may be considering maternal counseling, one national program, Mothers and Babies, offers a “toolkit” of approaches for women to “to observe their mood, notice factors affecting their mood, and make small changes in their daily lives to impact three core areas: pleasant activities, thoughts, and social support,” said social worker Erin Ward, the program manager for Mothers and Babies. 

The program offers counseling in group sessions in clinics and community health centers for pregnant women, as well as some postpartum sessions. During these sessions, clients identify activities that bring them pleasure and reduce stress and discuss ways to decrease harmful thoughts and increase helpful ones, as well as how to increase positive connections with other people.

The women in the program are also given “homework” that helps them to develop additional coping methods—identifying people in their lives who make them feel supported or using a “Quick Mood Scale” to rate their daily mood, for example.

In between sessions, women have found support by bonding with other mothers or people in their social circles. “A core foundation of the Mothers and Babies program is strengthening social support,” Ward told HelloGiggles. “Women are asked to identify people in their lives they can rely on for various needs, such as practical support, emotional support, advice, and guidance.”

Family therapy, individual therapy, and support groups can also help women dealing with perinatal depression. During individual therapy, women may “identify and resolve self-criticism and relational issues stemming from childhood or other unhealthy relationships and which are triggered by mom’s desire to provide better for her newborn,” said Caroline Artley, therapist and owner of E-Therapy Group, which offers online counseling to mothers. During family therapy, “adult family members may learn about the cause and course of the mental issues of the mother and/or other parent.”

While Mothers and Babies and programs like it are frequently offered via public health services, lack of transportation or childcare can present barriers to access for pregnant women. However, there are other alternatives, like online “mommy” support groups that can help mothers maintain their mental health, and online counseling.

Unfortunately, the number of mental health professionals trained to treat perinatal depression remains low. If you’re having trouble accessing maternal counseling, you can start by asking your obstetrician for a referral to a relevant group or by calling Postpartum Support International, which helps to connect mothers and expecting mothers to specialized care.