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Government Panel Recommends Stepped-Up Screening for Postpartum Depression

As many as one in seven women experience postpartum depression after childbirth. Now, amid growing efforts by states, medical organizations and healthcare advocates to help women affected by symptoms of maternal mental illness, a federal government panel recommends screening women for depression both during pregnancy and after birth.

New depression screening recommendations

According to a New York Times article, The United States Preventative Services Task Force recently released updated depression screening guidelines that specifically urge depression screening for pregnant and postpartum women. The task force consists of independent experts appointed by the Department of Health and Human Services. Previous guidelines, issued in 2009, lacked recommendations specific to pregnant women.

In past years, OB-GYNs and other caregivers who treat pregnant women hesitated to ask expectant mothers about issues like depression and anxiety. Some attribute this hesitation to providers’ fear that they might be at legal risk if they learned about a woman’s symptoms without the resources to follow up. In addition, women may often be reluctant to broach the subject with their doctors unprompted. The task force’s new guidelines are expected to spur more clinicians to conduct screening. Additionally, the Times explains that the task force gave its recommendation a “B” rating, which means that depression screening must be covered under the Affordable Care Act.

The Times reports that the new recommendations come in the wake of increasing evidence that maternal mental illness is more prevalent than previously believed. Many cases of what has been thought to be postpartum depression in fact begin during pregnancy, and, if left untreated, can ultimately harm children’s well-being.

The panel did not explicitly address which professionals should conduct depression screening, or how often it should be done. The panel does propose, however, that clinicians should have the ability to offer women a diagnosis and treatment, or to refer them elsewhere. Some in the field wonder whether screening by itself will help if women are not thereafter appropriately referred and treated.

Effects of postpartum depression

The consequences of untreated maternal mental illness can be significant. Pregnant women with depression may take poorer care of their prenatal health. Children of mothers with untreated symptoms can exhibit behavioral problems, emotional instability, and school difficulties. Studies have suggested that maternal stress may hinder a mother’s ability to care for or bond with her child, and can negatively impact children’s cognitive and emotional health.

Treatment for postpartum depression

Postpartum depression can be effectively treated. Options include cognitive behavioral or other talk therapy, and antidepressant medication. Some antidepressants do have a low risk of causing serious fetal harm if taken during pregnancy. However, one of the authors of the recommendation points out that untreated depression also carries significant adverse effects.

It is important for health care practitioners to keep up with new recommendations from the federal government such as these depression screening guidelines. Such recommendations inform the standard of care to which we expect medical professionals to adhere. If you believe that you or someone you love has been injured by a medical professional’s negligence or failure to diagnose a significant condition, reach out to us at Cohen, Placitella & Roth, P.C. for more information about your rights and options.


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