Families in Psychiatry

‘The birth of a mother is a complex process’


Barriers to treatment

Despite the significant rates of mental illness, pregnant and new mothers often face barriers to receiving treatment. Many psychiatrists are hesitant to prescribe psychiatric medication to pregnant women because of concerns about teratogenic potential of psychiatric medications; similar concerns exist for newborn babies when prescribing medications to lactating mothers. In addition, the field of reproductive psychiatry is evolving at a rapid pace, making it difficult for busy psychiatrists to keep up with the ever-growing literature.

Also, it is hard to imagine a population that has more barriers to attending outpatient appointments. For many new mothers, the exhaustion and all-consuming work involved with taking care of a newborn are insurmountable barriers to obtaining mental health care. In addition, despite the awareness that new mothers often are more emotional, families can be slow to recognize the developing severity of a psychiatric illness during the peripartum and postpartum periods.

Supporting and treating new mothers

As general psychiatrists, there are several ways to directly help these women.

1. Expect the expected. Even in women with no prior psychiatric history, a significant percentage of expectant and postpartum women will develop acute psychiatric symptoms. Learn about the different presentations and treatments of perinatal and postpartum psychiatric disorders. For example, a woman might have thoughts of harming her baby in both postpartum psychosis and obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, the acuity and treatment of these two conditions drastically differ.

2. Learn more about psychiatric medications. Several apps and websites are available to psychiatrists to learn about the safety profile of psychiatric medications, such as Reprotox.org, mothertobaby.org, lactmed, and womensmentalhealth.org. Many medications are considered to be relatively safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding. It is important for psychiatrists to appreciate the risks when choosing not to prescribe to pregnant and postpartum women. Sometimes a known risk of a specific medication may be preferable to the unknown risk of leaving a woman susceptible to a severe psychiatric decompensation.

3. Involve all members of the family. A mother’s mental health has significant implications for the entire family. Psychoeducation for the family as well as frequent family sessions are key tools when treating this population. In addition, prescribing to pregnant women provides the opportunity for a psychiatrist to refine skills in joint decision making; it is crucial to involve both a patient and her spouse when discussing psychiatric medications.

4. Provide ready access and collaborate care. It is important to understand the potential rapid onset of psychiatric symptoms during the pregnancy and postpartum period. Expectant and postpartum women should be granted priority for scheduling appointments with expedited appointments when possible. Psychiatrists should be prepared to collaborate care with other specialties. It is important to establish relationships with community psychotherapists specializing in maternal mental health, pediatricians, as well as obstetricians.

5. Learn when to seek a higher level of care. Although many women with perinatal and postpartum psychiatric symptoms can be managed as outpatients, women at times need a higher level of care. Similar to general psychiatry, women who are acutely suicidal or homicidal or have a sudden onset of psychotic and manic symptoms all should be evaluated immediately for inpatient hospitalization. Women with less severe symptoms but who require a higher level of care than typically offered in standard outpatient treatment should be candidates for partial hospitalization programs.

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