Postpartum mental health support harder to come by as demand for services spikes during pandemic

·4 min read
Amelia Versteeg and 10-month-old daughter Clarke are pictured at their home in North Vancouver, B.C. Versteeg said COVID-19 safety protocols left her feeling isolated and stressed during her pregnancy, spurring the onset of postpartum depression. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Amelia Versteeg and 10-month-old daughter Clarke are pictured at their home in North Vancouver, B.C. Versteeg said COVID-19 safety protocols left her feeling isolated and stressed during her pregnancy, spurring the onset of postpartum depression. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Though Amelia Versteeg was in the midst of B.C.'s first COVID-19 lockdown when she found out she was pregnant, the North Vancouver mom says she and her husband were optimistic the pregnancy would be relatively normal.

What followed, however, was anything but, as prenatal care shifted to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions.

"You don't get that connection and sense of community that you would if you were going [to appointments in person]," said Versteeg, 34.

"You never run into other mothers ... all the appointments were staggered to make sure that you didn't come across anyone else."

After being induced four weeks early, Versteeg's daughter, Clarke, was born healthy at the end of November 2020.

But the stress and isolation of pregnancy cast a long shadow over new motherhood, resulting in postpartum depression

Experts across B.C. say they are seeing an increase in postpartum depression, stretching supports for new mothers thin.

In a statement, B.C.'s Ministry of Health acknowledged that mental health programs for women and their families, including treatment services for postpartum depression, have seen an increase in demand.

It also says "we are slowly seeing a decrease in the number of patients on the wait-list, so it is expected that wait times will start trending downward again."

But Versteeg told CBC News she's not sure the government is aware of the toll wait times can have on those living with postpartum depression.

She had initially been referred to B.C. Women's Hospital for prenatal anxiety treatment in October 2020, only to be put on a wait-list. Two months later, following Clarke's birth, she told her husband she had begun to experience intrusive, graphic thoughts about harming her newborn.

Versteeg found individual and group counselling through the non-profit Pacific Post Partum Support Society (PPPSS), but it wasn't until late January 2021 that the new mom — now diagnosed with postpartum depression and anxiety — had her first hospital appointment.

Asked about the wait times at B.C. Women's Hospital, Providence Health deferred to the Ministry of Health, who did not provide any numbers.

Spike in psychiatry referrals

Dr. Valentina Mendoza, medical lead for the reproductive psychiatry program at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver, says the clinic has seen an increase of more than 60 per cent in new referrals since the start of the pandemic.

Christian Amundson/CBC
Christian Amundson/CBC

"We would see about 300 new patients per year," said Mendoza. "Now we are looking at exceeding 500."

Mendoza says the clinic has adjusted to meet demand, asking psychiatrists to increase their number of weekly assessments, while also offering consultations between staff and primary physicians in order to reduce the number of patients waiting for care.

"We like to keep our wait-list under three weeks," she said. "At one point in June, we were at about 13 weeks. That's not ideal."

181% increase in support call times

PPPSS has also adjusted its services in order to meet increased demand from across the province.

"We've had around a thousand more calls to our helpline [this fiscal year]," said director Sheila Duffy. "We were around 5,000 and now we're at 6,300."

CBC
CBC

Duffy says the length of calls has also increased, with the number of conversations going longer than 60 minutes increasing by 181 per cent. The non-profit has also increased its online group sessions from nine to 20 sessions a day.

Still, Duffy says, people are waiting "too long" for their services, sometimes between one and two months.

"When you've got a young baby, two months is a really long time to wait to get support," she said.

Weeks pass between appointments

Versteeg is now taking medication and seeing a psychiatrist at B.C. Women's every eight weeks. But she believes the appointments are too far apart to properly monitor adjustments to her medication.

She also continues to attend group sessions at PPPSS and says her mental health has improved significantly.

"Being able to talk to six other women who are around the same stage as you, who had intrusive thoughts and postpartum [depression] ... being able to just talk to them about how your week was, things you were struggling with ... [there's a] sense of connection, of 'I'm not alone.'"

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