Doctor says pregnant women should have long been screened for depression

Science Friday
A pregnant woman with a painted stomach participates in the 15th annual Santa Speedo Run through the streets of the Back Bay in Boston.

A government health panel recently announced new recommendations that women should be screened for depression during and after pregnancy.

Samantha Meltzer-Brody, director of the Perinatal Psychiatry Program at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, thinks this is a move that’s long been needed in the US. The US Preventive Services Task Force made the new recommendations. 

“Mental health is often left off the table,” Meltzer-Brody says. “Unfortunately, at least half the time or more women are not screened at all. It’s not talked about. They don't realize it's a problem, they’re reluctant to bring it up, and so they suffer unnecessarily, which causes poor outcomes for them, their children and their families.”

Meltzer-Brody says a depression screening is an incredibly simple, low-risk, and easy-to-administer tool. It’s usually a short form that includes some nine to 10 questions about a woman’s mood, anxiety, level of functioning, thoughts of suicide and so on.

“Unfortunately right now it's very, very spotty," Meltzer-Brody says, "There are some places that do it quite well and women are screened throughout pregnancy in the postpartum period. Unfortunately, in many, many places there's absolutely no screening that occurs at all, and I think what's great about the current recommendations is that it will hopefully change that practice.”

The prevalence of depression for women at any time in their life is at least 10 percent. But women are most likely to experience depression during the first month after delivery. Which, Meltzer-Brody argues, is why it’s so important for women to receive a depression screening while pregnant. 

“It is such a vulnerable time, so when people get sick it can have devastating consequences," she says. “Given the amazing tools we now have, there's really no excuse for us to not move forward in a really productive way.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.

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