Families in Psychiatry

‘The birth of a mother is a complex process’

Softening the blow to women and families of severe perinatal, postpartum psychiatric disorders


Editor’s Note: Alison M. Heru, MD, the Families in Psychiatry columnist, invited Dr. Reinstein to address this topic.

“But this was not what I expected!” That’s a statement I have heard from countless new mothers.


Women often envision pregnancy and the postpartum period as a time of pure joy. The glow of an expectant woman and the excitement of the arrival of a new baby masks the reality that many women struggle emotionally when transitioning to motherhood. Like the birth of a child, the birth of a mother is a complex process. Upholding the myth that all women seamlessly transform into mothers can have devastating effects and hinder access to mental health care.

As a psychiatrist working on a women’s inpatient unit with a perinatal program, I treat women at times of crisis. What may have begun as mild anxiety or depression sometimes quickly spirals into severe psychiatric illness. The sheer force of these severe perinatal and postpartum psychiatric disorders often leaves women and families shocked and confused, wondering what happened to their crumbled dreams of early motherhood.

What must general psychiatrists know about perinatal and postpartum psychiatric disorders? Why is maternal mental health so important? What are the barriers to treatment for these women? How can general psychiatrists best support and treat these new mothers and their families?

What data show

Maternal depression is now known to be one of the most common complications of pregnancy. Studies have suggested that about 11% of women experience depression during pregnancy1 and approximately 17% of women are depressed in the postpartum period.2 Perinatal generalized anxiety disorder has been shown to have a prevalence of 8.5%-10.5% during pregnancy with a wider variance post partum.3 Approximately 3% of women in the general community develop PTSD symptoms following childbirth.4 Research suggests that about 2% of women develop obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms in the postpartum period.5 Postpartum psychosis, a rare but potentially devastating illness, occurs after 0.1%-0.2% of births.6

Importance of maternal mental health

There is a growing body of literature supporting both obstetric and pediatric adverse outcomes related to untreated psychiatric illness. Untreated maternal depression has been associated with obstetric complications, such as preterm delivery, preeclampsia, low birth weight, as well as the child’s developing cognitive function.7 Anxiety during pregnancy has been associated with both a shorter gestational period and adverse implications for fetal neurodevelopment.

Dr. Sarah Reinstein of Zucker Hillside Hospital of the Northwell Health System, Glen Oaks, N.Y.

Dr. Sarah Reinstein

These adverse effects were found to be even more potent in “pregnancy anxiety,” or anxiety specifically focused on the pregnancy, the birth experience, and the transition to motherhood.8 The psychotic symptoms occurring during postpartum psychosis can jeopardize the lives of both a woman and her child and carries a 4% risk of infanticide.9 Although there are limited data about the long-term effects of postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorders and PTSD, it is reasonable to assume that they might carry negative long-term implications for the mother and possibly her child.


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