COVID-19 related stress impacted the mental health of those who were pregnant during the pandemic, than those who were not, said a new University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney) study.
In a longitudinal study of 742 pregnant participants, the researchers said that covid pandemic related stress had the greatest impact on pregnant people who had a tendency to worry, felt lonely, or had a low tolerance for uncertainty.
Dr Susanne Schweizer from UNSW Science, together with colleagues in Europe and the US, collected data on mental health at multiple time points, both during and after pregnancy. They looked at COVID-19 related stress in the post-partum period, 1.5 years after the first investigation.
The researchers found that feeling stressed about the pandemic during pregnancy had a lasting effect on participants’ own mental health. They also found an increase in negative mood in their infants.
“The Centre for Disease Control identifies pregnant women as a vulnerable group in terms of physical health during pandemics and disease outbreaks,” says Dr Schweizer. “Based on these findings, and those of others, we should also identify pregnant women as a vulnerable group in terms of mental health.”
MENTAL HEALTH VULNERABILITY FACTORS
Importantly, the research team compared the pregnant women who took part in the study to gender, age and country matched controls. “So, you have someone who’s as similar as possible, but who isn’t pregnant at that point in time. And we looked at the impacts of pandemic related stress on their mental health,” says Dr Schweizer.
Pandemic stress was measured using the Pandemic Anxiety Scale, which measures individuals’ concerns about the pandemic, including worries about contracting the virus, having enough food and job-related impacts.
EFFECT ON INFANT BEHAVIOUR
It was not just the mothers who were negatively impacted but the researchers found a higher chance of ‘negative affectivity’ in their infants.
“What’s always going to predict your mental health best is your mental health at a previous timepoint,” says Dr Schweizer. “So I was surprised that pandemic related stress during pregnancy adversely impacted maternal depression, anxiety and distress that far into the future, even when we controlled for their previous levels of mental wellbeing.”
Negative affectivity includes the infant being more likely to cry and less easily settled, as well as less likely to venture into an unknown situation.
“Negative affectivity is a measure of infant mood. But it has been associated with a range of behavioural problems, and importantly, also cognition. It has also been associated with developmental outcomes across the lifespan.”
While there is already a robust literature showing that maternal postpartum mental health is significantly associated with infant behaviour, this is one of the first studies to examine the association of stress during pregnancy with mother and infant mental health outcomes during the pandemic.
BRINGING MENTAL HEALTH TO THE FOREFRONT
Dr Schweizer, who herself has lived experience of being pregnant during the pandemic, argues more support is urgently needed for pregnant people’s mental health as part of standard pregnancy care. “Pregnancy is a period of vulnerability for mental health problems. Intense and rapidly fluctuating moods and emotions are a normal part of pregnancy and after birth, many people will experience intrusive, unwanted thoughts. But we are not told enough about this.
“Pregnant individuals need to be given information about what to expect, what is common and when they should seek help.”
Off the back of this study, Dr Schweizer and her team are looking to create online educational resources for people to learn about how pregnancy can affect mental health, and they are hoping to bring this conversation to the forefront of the discourse around pregnancy care.