July 13, 2024

Mental health issues may be the most common pregnancy and post-pregnancy complication facing women, says a McGill study.

Tina Montreuil, an associate professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, is one of the principal investigators of the Montreal Antenatal Well-Being Study (MAWS), alongside Kieran O’Donnell of Yale University.

One of the largest studies in Canada seeking to better understand mental health during and after pregnancy, MAWS’ aim is to better understand when and how to best identify individuals who require mental health support during the perinatal period, which encompasses pregnancy and up to a year after giving birth.

“Despite the high incidence of perinatal mental health issues, perinatal mental health screening and detection is not part of routine prenatal care in Canada, unlike other developed countries,” says Montreuil. “Prevention and early intervention are key to ensuring the well-being of women, children, and their families.”

Initial findings

Tina Montreuil, PhD

On April 8, Montreuil went before the House of Commons of Canada to discuss her research with the Standing Committee on Health. The findings shared in her testimony include:

  • Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders such as depression and anxiety affect as many as 20 per cent of pregnant and postpartum individuals.
  • An even greater number women of marginalized and under-represented populations, especially BIPOC women, are disproportionately affected and missed in many of the studies.
  • More than 350,000 individuals become pregnant in Canada every year, suggesting that 87,500 – 105,000 Canadians may experience perinatal mental health issues – making it the most common pregnancy complication.
  • Unlike other gestational conditions affecting the pregnant person, mental health issues remain the most underdiagnosed.

A unique aspect of Montreuil’s study is the fact that recruitment began prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which allowed researchers to compare participants’ anxiety and depressive symptoms before and following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our findings surprisingly revealed that our participants did not experience catastrophic increases in mental health symptoms – such as anxiety and depression – as it was reported by other pandemic studies,” she says.

Representative of Montreal’s diversity

The study encompasses 1,100 participants recruited in early pregnancy between 2019 and 2022, a sample that is largely representative of Montreal’s ethnic and cultural diversity, as well as income and education levels.

Participants completed questionnaires about their mental and physical health, childhood experiences, trauma experiences, social supports, relationships quality, and more; maternal DNA samples were also collected.

“Our research questions aimed to address important knowledge gaps in women’s health research,” says Montreuil. “Targeting parental perinatal mental health issues is a critical contribution to society.”

Future implications

Montreuil’s study was recently extended and will soon begin collecting data on MAWS-born children when they turn five years old.

In the meantime, she hopes to see perinatal mental health screening and detection become part of routine prenatal care in Canada.

“My team and I are eager to see Quebec adopt a perinatal mental health strategy with clear clinical guidelines that include trauma-informed and culturally-safe mental health needs assessment and referral pathways,” she says. “We would also like to see province-wide prioritization of pregnant and post-partum individuals for mental health services.”

Until then, the MAWS team has compiled a list of resources for current or future parents.

“The perinatal period represents a unique opportunity to capitalize on regular and increased healthcare system use to work on your psychological well-being,” says Montreuil.

“If you’re struggling with your mental health, you’re not a bad person or parent. There is help available.”

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