COVID-19 Has Increased Anxiety and Depression in Pregnant and Postpartum Women, According to an Ob-Gyn Physician Assistant

It's just as important to take care of their mental health as it is their physical health.

The pandemic has been difficult for everyone—but for pregnant women and those adding to their growing families, COVID-19 has only exacerbated some of the struggles that can accompany bringing a baby into this world, specifically those surrounding mental health.

"One thing that I've definitely noticed and have seen more and taken care of more is the number [women] with anxiety and depression," Brittney Pohler, an NCCPA-certified ob-gyn physician assistant practicing in College Station, Texas, tells Health. "It's really grown through our patient population; not just in our pregnant, expecting, and postpartum mothers, but women in general."

Pohler says the isolation that comes with social distancing is difficult for mental health. "We're starting to not be able to have baby showers or at least big gatherings and celebrations that you normally want to when you're expecting or adding to your family, whether it's your first one or it's your fourth or fifth or sixth," she says. "You want to celebrate and welcome those in, and we're telling you to take those social distancing guidelines seriously." While sticking to those guidelines keeps pregnant women as healthy as possible right now, they also end up feeling "locked inside of their home for a big stint of their pregnancy," she says.

New mothers, of course, feel the effects of isolation, too. "You can't get out with the new baby, you can't maybe have family or friends come over like you did before to maybe help you, so it's extremely isolating and hard on these women."

Pohler has felt the mental health effects that can come with being an expecting and new mother—as well as those surrounding a medical condition in need of treatment. "When I was in PA school, I was diagnosed with stage 4 endometriosis and got thrown into this intense infertility journey," she says. "Through all of the office appointments and visits and second opinions and ultrasounds and procedures and surgeries, you really start to see how you want to be treated, and you see people do it well, and you see people do it not so well," says Pohler.

It was that experience that helped Pohler realize the mental health aspect of being an ob-gyn physician assistant. "When I started, I didn't fully realize how much mental health I would do until I got out there," she says. "Sometimes you're the only person they're comfortable talking to, and so you end up kind of being a jack of all trades and trying to care for your people."

That's why, in addition to caring for the women she works with physically, she also feels a responsibility to advocate for their mental health. "There's always been a stigma around mental health, and especially women and postpartum health," she says. "I think there's this misconception or perception out there on social media that you're given this baby and you should have your hair done, and be cooking dinner, and be happy about it." But Pohler wants to remind people that when it comes to mental health—depression, anxiety, postpartum depression, etc.—"those are often really complex chemical and hormonal processes that are out of our own control." That's why she tries to help women get the help they need. "I just really try to advocate that this is making you the best you," she says.

While Pohler says she's always seen women in her practice seek help for anxiety and depression, she believes quarantining and socially distancing has led to an uptick in mental health issues for women. "All of us are creatures of habit," she says. "We like our stability, and with coronavirus, while we're focusing very much on the physical aspects of our health, I think we've somehow forgotten some of the mental aspects."

Sometimes, Pohler says, mental health issues come out in more subtle ways that many women don't immediately notice. "Sometimes patients don't know that's necessarily what they're struggling with," she says. "They start off with issues with insomnia or not being able to sleep or racing thoughts, and then being able to talk them through [it] and kind of bring them back to when it all started, and a lot of it's centered around self-quarantine."

According to Pohler, there are small adjustments you can make to take extra care of your mental health during the pandemic. She suggests "taking a few minutes a day, a week, to think about yourself, listen, make sure you're getting appropriate sleep, rest, and are eating a good, well-balanced diet." She also urges everyone to continue practicing social distancing and to keep wearing a mask in public when social distancing isn't possible. "[It's'] not just for yourself, but to protect others as well," she says, adding that helping others is why she and her colleagues continue to serve during the coronavirus pandemic. "It helps most of us do this because it's a calling," she says. "Just knowing that it's for a bigger purpose than just ourselves."

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