Postpartum Depression Recommendations: Screen More Women and Lengthen the Screening Period

VA Providers may need to more closely adhere to guidance to treat postpartum depression more effectively


Clinical practice guidelines advise screening women for perinatal depression twice prenatally and once postpartum, but providers at the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) may not be adhering closely to those recommendations. In a multisite cohort study, the researchers enrolled women veterans who were pregnant and delivered newborns between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2019. The researchers combined electronic health record and claims data with information collected from prenatal and postpartum telephone surveys.

Of the 663 women involved, 93% received primary care at a VA facility during pregnancy; 41% saw a VA mental health provider. Less than half of the sample had been screened for depression during the perinatal period, despite contact with VA providers. Only 13% of the women had both prenatal and postnatal screens.

Screened veterans were less likely to be diagnosed with depression by a VA provider in either the preconception or pregnancy periods, compared with those not screened (11% vs 24% and 14% vs 23%, respectively).

Among unscreened women, 18% scored positive for depression prenatally and 9% postnatally on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression scale. The researchers note that lack of screening can hinder connection to VA mental health treatment and referral resources.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians screen mothers for postpartum depression at 1, 2, 4, and 6 months after childbirth. But extending that into toddlerhood could pick up more women at risk, say National Institutes of Health researchers. “[S]ix months may not be long enough to gauge depressive symptoms,” said Diane Putnick, PhD, primary author.

In their study of 4,866 women, the researchers analyzed data from the Upstate KIDS study, which included babies born between 2008 and 2010 in New York State. The researchers found that approximately 1 in 4 women experienced high levels of depressive symptoms at some point during the 3 postnatal years.

In addition to extending the screening period to 36 months, the researchers advise keeping watch on women with underlying conditions, such as mood disorders and/or gestational diabetes, who were more likely to have higher levels of depressive symptoms that persisted.

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