In a first-time recognition of the vulnerability of pregnant women and new mothers to depression, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has recommended routine mental health screenings.
Widespread screening could lead to meaningful conversations with doctors and help reduce the stigma moms feel about saying what’s going on inside during what is supposed to be a celebratory time of life. Too often, young families suffer in isolation, ashamed to admit their lives are anything but rosy. Statistics about babies’ deaths at the hands of their mothers tell the sad story. An exact number is hard to pinpoint, but some estimate as many as 100 a year in the United States. Preventive screenings and treatment could raise up the lives not only of mothers but also families.
OB-GYNs and pediatricians should make it a practice to screen and treat, or to screen and refer. Severe mood changes can begin during pregnancy, the task force emphasized, not always postpartum. Depending on how physicians perceive the need of their patients, they can refer to the many good ideas contained in the task force report to raise awareness, such as staff seminars and follow-up home visits.
Public and private insurance companies must be required to cover the screenings; young families shouldn’t be burdened with extra costs. However, more focus is needed on treatment and how to pay for options.
As a society, the report acknowledges, we are more ready to talk openly about mental health. In the seven years since the task force last looked at depression screening, better tools to identify and treat mental illness have developed and services are more widespread.
The de Blasio administration was prescient about this next step. First lady Chirlane McCray recommended last year that pregnant women and new mothers be screened for depression, and NYC Health + Hospitals and Maimonides Medical Center committed to universal screening and referral to treatment within two years.
Acknowledging the challenges of life-changing events such as pregnancy and birth is a healthy choice for America.