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Depression rates among pregnant women, new moms doubled during lockdown, study finds

Researcher ‘surprised’ by the high numbers, and says that even though lockdowns seem to be behind us, it will take time for levels to get back to normal

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image of a mother with postnatal depression (iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of a mother with postnatal depression (iStock by Getty Images)

Two out of five Israeli women giving birth in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic experienced prenatal or postnatal depression, double the pre-COVID rates, according to a new study.

Researchers from Ben-Gurion University studied 730 Israeli women who gave birth between July 2020 and February 2021, a time that included the nation’s third lockdown, and found that 40 percent reported forms of depression ahead of giving birth and/or in the first year of the baby’s life.

The study adds to a growing body of literature on damage the pandemic has wreaked on peoples’ mental health, especially women, children and the most vulnerable.

According to the study, women who were out of work and those who were stressed about the coronavirus were far more likely to be among those who developed depression.

Unemployed women were four times more likely than others to be depressed, and those who felt high pressure from the coronavirus were three times more likely than those who were less concerned about it.

The peer-reviewed research is part of a 12-country study led by Dr. Rena Bina and Dr. Drorit Levy of Bar Ilan university and by Dr. Samira Alfiomi-Ziadna of Ben-Gurion University’s Center for Research and Promotion of Women’s Health, though the non-Israeli component hasn’t yet been published.

Women in the study were interviewed and assessed according to criteria that are in widespread use by mental health professionals before birth and through the year-long period after birth.

“We were very surprised by just how high the rates have become, as before the pandemic 15% to 20% of women giving birth experienced depression beforehand or afterwards,” Alfiomi-Ziadna told The Times of Israel. “It is very concerning, and even though we no longer have lockdowns, we believe that it will take time for rates to fall back to pre-pandemic levels.”

The study found that Arab women in Israel were far more susceptible to depression than Jewish women.

Some 58% of the Arab women surveyed reported depression, compared to 36% for the Jewish women. She believes that low socio-economic status is the main culprit. “Economic levels tend to be lower, and this seems to have a real impact,” she said.

Illustrative image: A new mother in hospital after childbirth, during the pandemic (iStock via Getty Images)

She attributed the spike to the lockdowns. “Being in the home during the coronavirus lockdowns disrupted normal social and family support structures,” she commented.

“There were also economic consequences, which also intensified depression and anxiety during pregnancy and after childbirth, such as women who did not return to work, or women whose husbands lost their jobs.”

A series of studies in Israel and elsewhere have pointed to sudden jumps in the number of people experiencing depression, stress, domestic abuse and other ill effects during the pandemic.

Alfiomi-Ziadna said that the finding should prompt health care providers and families to be more vigilant.

“Routine screening for depression among new mothers would make a lot of sense, and also family members should be aware of the risk of depression,” she said.

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