Evidence-Based Reviews

How COVID-19 affects peripartum women’s mental health

Author and Disclosure Information

Addressing the factors that increase risk can help reduce anxiety, depression, and stress.



The COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on the mental health of people worldwide, and a disproportionate effect on peripartum women. In this article, we discuss the reasons for this disparity, review the limited literature on this topic, and suggest strategies to safeguard the mental health of peripartum women during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Catastrophic events and women’s mental health

During the peripartum period, women have increased psychosocial and physical health needs.1 In addition, women are disproportionately affected by natural disasters and catastrophic events,2 which are predictors of psychiatric symptoms during the peripartum period.3 Mass tragedies previously associated with maternal stress include wildfires, hurricanes, migrations, earthquakes, and tsunamis.4,5 For example, pregnant women who survived severe exposure during Hurricane Katrina (ie, feeling that one’s life was in danger, experiencing illness or injury to self or a family member, walking through floodwaters) in 2005 had a significantly increased risk of developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression compared with pregnant women who did not have such exposure.6 After the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the prevalence of psychological distress in pregnant women increased, especially among those living in the area directly affected by the tsunami.5

Epidemics and pandemics also can adversely affect peripartum women’s mental health. Studies conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic found that previous infectious disease outbreaks such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the 2009 influenza A (H1N1) pandemic, and Zika had negative emotional impacts on pregnant women.7 Our review of the limited literature published to date suggests that COVID-19 is having similar adverse effects.

COVID-19 poses both medical and psychiatric threats

COVID-19 infection is a physical threat to pregnant women who are already vulnerable due to the hormonal and immunological changes inherent to pregnancy. A meta-analysis of 39 studies with a total of 1,316 pregnant women indicated that the most frequently reported symptoms of COVID-19 infection were cough, fever, and myalgias.8 However, COVID-19 infection during pregnancy is also associated with an increase in pregnancy complications and adverse birth outcomes.9 According to the CDC, compared with their nonpregnant counterparts, pregnant women are at greater risk for severe COVID-19 infection and adverse birth outcomes such as preterm birth.10 Pregnant women who are infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2; the virus responsible for COVID-19) risk ICU admission, caesarean section, and perinatal death.8 A Swedish study of 2,682 pregnant women found an increase in preeclampsia among women who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, a finding attributed to COVID-19’s pattern of systemic effects.11 Vertical transmission of the novel coronavirus from mother to fetus appears to be rare but possible.12

In addition to the physical dangers of becoming infected with COVID-19, the perceived threat of infection is an added source of anxiety for some peripartum women. In addition to the concerns involved in any pregnancy, COVID-19–related sources of distress for pregnant women include worrying about harm to the fetus during pregnancy, the possibility of vertical transmission, and exposures during antenatal appointments, during employment, or from a partner.8,13

The death toll from factors associated with COVID-19 adds to the mental health burden. For every person who dies of COVID-19, an estimated 9 others may develop prolonged grief or PTSD due to the loss of someone they loved.14,15 A systematic review found that PTSD in the perinatal period is associated with negative birth and child outcomes, including low birth weight and decreased rates of breastfeeding.16 The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted human interactions, from social distancing rules and lockdowns of businesses and social activities to panic buying of grocery staples and increased economic insecurity.1 These changes have been accompanied by a rise in mental health challenges. For example, according to an August 2020 CDC survey, 40.9% of US adults reported at least 1 adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including symptoms of anxiety or depression (30.9%), symptoms of a trauma- and stressor-related disorder related to the pandemic (26.3%), and having started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19 (13.3%).17

COVID-19–related traumas and stressors appear to affect women more than men. A study from China found that compared with men, women had significantly higher levels of self-reported pandemic-related anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSS).18 This trend has been observed in other parts of the world. A study conducted by the UK Office of National Statistics reported anxiety levels were 24% higher in women vs men as reflected by scores on a self-rated anxiety scale.19

Continue to: Many factors influence...


Recommended Reading

Dr. Fauci: Extraordinary challenges, scientific triumphs with COVID-19
MDedge Psychiatry
New guidance for those fully vaccinated against COVID-19
MDedge Psychiatry
COVID-19 fallout makes case for promoting the mental health czar
MDedge Psychiatry
Acts of kindness, empathy bolster mental health
MDedge Psychiatry
A new take on breathing and a performance-enhancing placebo
MDedge Psychiatry
HHS to inject billions into mental health, substance use disorders
MDedge Psychiatry
ID experts dole out practical advice to help with mask confusion
MDedge Psychiatry
AHA reassures myocarditis rare after COVID vaccination, benefits overwhelm risks
MDedge Psychiatry
How to help vaccinated patients navigate FOGO (fear of going out)
MDedge Psychiatry
No-cancel culture: How telehealth is making it easier to keep that therapy session
MDedge Psychiatry