A rise in postpartum mental health challenges during pandemic brings new local supports

Before the pandemic, about one in seven women would experience postpartum depression or anxiety. An international study found that number has increased to one in three, leading to new local solutions.

A clinic for new parents says it’s seeing more severe cases of anxiety and depression

Hamilton mom Robyn Currie says the isolation of pandemic life had a major impact on her experience with postpartum mental health challenges. An international study of pregnant and postpartum women during the pandemic found high numbers experienced 'elevated posttraumatic stress, anxiety [or] depression, and loneliness.' (Daniel Taekema/CBC)

When Robyn Currie pictured having a baby, she imagined mom-and-baby yoga classes, hanging out with other new parents and relaxing in coffee shops while her new child took a nap.

Instead, she experienced social isolation, physical distancing and a bunch of cancelled programs. Realizing her expectations wouldn't come to fruition left her grappling with grief, loneliness and depression.

"These ideas you have in your head are just gone and are not going to happen," said Currie, who lives in Hamilton. She had a baby girl in May after suffering a miscarriage closer to the start of the pandemic.

"It was terrible but made worse because everything shut down.... I felt incredibly isolated [and] incredibly overwhelmed."

Currie says the added stress and limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the thoughts of suicide and cycles of deep depression that she experienced — and she is far from alone. 

'Very tough for a lot of mothers'

An international study of nearly 7,000 pregnant and postpartum women conducted during the pandemic found that "substantial proportions ... scored at or above the cut-offs for elevated posttraumatic stress, anxiety [or] depression, and loneliness."

The peer-reviewed paper, A Cross-national Study of Factors Associated with Women's Perinatal Mental Health and Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Pandemic, was published by the interdisciplinary academic journal PLOS One in April.

Before the pandemic, about one in seven women would experience postpartum depression or anxiety, according to organizations, including the American Psychological Association. The new paper's researchers say that number has increased to one in three.

"Public health campaigns and medical care systems need to explicitly address the impact of COVID-19 related stressors on mental health in perinatal women," the paper states.

It's an issue health departments and regional governments in provinces across the country have raised over the course of the pandemic, from B.C. to P.E.I. Earlier this year, the Canadian Perinatal Mental Health Collaborative called for a national strategy in light of the increase in postpartum depression in Canada.

The effects are apparent at the Women's Health Concerns Clinic at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, which addresses postpartum mental health. Clinic medical director Dr. Benicio Frey, a psychiatrist, says he's seen increasing severity of mental health challenges since the start of the pandemic.

"We identified ... much higher rates of anxiety," he told CBC News.

"We're seeing extreme worrying, panic attacks and physical symptoms [caused by mental health challenges].... Because the pandemic has been so long, people end up developing a lot of depressive symptoms as a result; feeling hopeless, feeling down, feeling socially isolated.... It's very tough for a lot of mothers."

Currie plays with her baby daughter, who was born in May, at their home in east Hamilton on Wednesday. (Daniel Taekema/CBC)

The clinic is hosting an online forum on Monday in the hopes of informing and supporting members of the public who are experiencing something similar — or who are expecting a child and would like to start planning for mental health support.

Frey says he encounters many new parents who had not previously struggled with anxiety or depression and feel caught off guard by their struggles after having a child. He says the clinic's research has shown that peer support can help drive the success of psychotherapy.

"It's a lot more powerful for moms to hear from other moms," he said, noting that new parents often feel guilty about having negative feelings at a time society expects them to be overjoyed. "They'll think, 'I am not a good mom.' But when they see other loving, caring moms who are struggling as well, it's healing and part of the recovery."

Away from family support

Safeya Wahbi, a Hamilton mother of five, had her youngest daughter just months before the pandemic. As a newcomer to Canada, her local network was already limited. Then, when schools and other amenities shut down, her children were home all of the time, and Wahbi was afraid to go out in case she or her baby got sick.

"She was a small baby and could easily catch any infection, any illness," she told CBC News in an interview translated from Arabic. "For sure, I was worried about her and I was worried about myself because I had issues after delivery: iron deficiency, vitamin deficiency. I was afraid that if I went out I'd catch any virus.... I hated the situation, I hated Canada, I hated myself, I hated these matters, life."

With limited options for support, she asked for help from God. "I used to pray. Honestly, I used to cry."

Being away from her extended family made things so much worse, Wahbi says, adding they would have helped her if they had been nearby.

"In Syria, I had family. My mom, my siblings, my in-laws ... they helped with the baby. Here, in less than 24 hours after delivery, I came back home and I bathed the baby all by myself."

Wahbi says she is still feeling the effects of the isolation. "Whenever I feel pressured, annoyed or face any trouble, honestly, I feel so bad."

In Syria, I had family. My mom, my siblings, my in-laws ... they helped with the baby.- Safeya Wahbi

Naomi Mendes-Pouget, a postpartum doula, says she has seen the ravages of isolation among her clients.

"Having no reason to leave the house for a new parent can be really hard, especially if you're someone who does need that kind of engagement with the outside world," she said.

Mendes-Pouget works with many LGBTQ+ parents and says they already face challenges during pregnancy and childbirth that can be isolating, as so many resources are focused specifically on "moms" that it can leave parents of other genders feeling unwelcome. COVID-19 has just added another layer to that isolation, she says.

New support groups and an online platform 

Last summer, Mendes-Pouget launched the online community Queer Nest Club to help address those challenges. She says it's a curated, supportive experience, unlike a Facebook group, where members can participate in live sessions and other facilitated experiences meant to build community and spark reflection.

Having a supportive social group, whether online or in a COVID-safe way in-person, is so important that Mendes-Pouget recommends spending time during pregnancy to start getting it lined up.

"I tell people prenatally to start to look for people who are at a similar place in their journey," she said. "Don't wait. When the moods start to come in and they overwhelm, it's a lot harder to feel like going to look for friends."

Another new option for parents who are struggling is Blues and Beyond, a locally made platform that combines online resources for new parents, a 24-hour phone line staffed by perinatal support workers and a phone service that reaches out to parents at regular intervals to make sure they are OK.

It was created by Emily Fazio, a recent McMaster University psychology graduate, and launched in September.

Fazio says growing up with a mom in the perinatal support field meant constantly hearing stories of families who were overwhelmed, distressed and didn't have access to the resources they needed.

"I was hearing all these stories of people who don't have help, and I wasn't sure why because [parents are] such a large portion of the population," said Fazio, who put $1,000 of her own money into the website and staffs the phone line with volunteers.

She's also running a GoFundMe campaign to try to raise more money, and she's also applying for grants.

"I saw time and time again, parents struggling and facing mental health issues. I wanted to make sure every parent has a place to go to find these resources."

Where to get help

Canada Suicide Prevention Service
Toll-free 1-833-456-4566
Text: 45645
Chat: crisisservicescanada.ca 

In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: Phone: 1-800-668-6868 
Text: TALK to 686868 (English) or TEXTO to 686868 (French)
Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre


Saira Peesker is a reporter with CBC Hamilton, with particular interests in climate, labour and local politics. She has previously worked with the Hamilton Spectator and CTV News, and is a regular contributor to the Globe and Mail, covering business and personal finance. Saira can be reached at saira.peesker@cbc.ca.

With files from Rasha Shehata