When last I wrote this column, I was preparing for travel to professional meetings in the spring, planning a presentation for an upcoming grand rounds, and readying to host a scientific advisory board meeting as part of a large scientific project we conduct in Center for Women’s Mental Health. We were also awaiting the relocation of several junior faculty and research staff to Boston this spring and summer as we build our team.
It is now obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic is not a passing squall, but rather a persistent gale that has placed our collective sails in the water. It has not capsized the boat, however, thanks in part to the actions of courageous frontline caregivers and first responders who have mobilized in the wake of this recent public health crisis. From doctors, nurses, and hospital staff to grocery store clerks, home health aides, and neighbors checking in on the elderly – to name just a few – a whole crew of members across society have helped buoy our collective ship. Resilience also is required by all of us who are managing the array of feelings brought about by the day-in, day-out challenges of living life with restricted movement and freedom to engage in pre-COVID-19 activities we took for granted. What seemed like a temporary workaround is now becoming the “new normal” for an unknown amount of time looking forward.
For over 3 decades, my colleagues and I have worked with women who suffer from serious psychiatric disorders and whose treatment has required psychiatric medications such as antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and anxiolytics. The challenge of our work with women who are pregnant or planning pregnancy has been the configuration of the safest ways to navigate treatment on an individual basis for these women across pregnancy and post partum, with continual assessments of how to minimize the risk to fetus from in utero exposure to medications that have been instrumental in the treatment of psychiatric disorders on one hand versus the risks of untreated psychiatric disorder on the other. This work has been the essence of the clinical mission and the cornerstone of the research conducted at the Center for Women’s Mental Health since its inception.
While I have worked shoulder to shoulder with obstetricians for years, my respect for these colleagues during these past weeks has only grown as they have instituted the swiftest protocols to mitigate risk associated with COVID-19 for our pregnant patients, some of whom have tested positive for COVID-19, all in an effort to keep both mother, fetus, and newborn as safe as possible.
For those of us providing mental health services to pregnant women during this time, certain clinical situations have arisen in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic which require particular attention and discussion.
Planned pregnancy and contraception during the COVID-19 pandemic
Half of the pregnancies in this country are unplanned. Now more than ever, it is critical that decisions about moving forward with a plan to conceive be deliberate. These considerations range from the existential to the most concrete. For example, during these last weeks, we have consulted on cases where couples on the cusp of attempts to conceive face concerns about COVID-19, hence making more complicated their timeline with respect to actual plans to get pregnant. These are complicated decisions, particularly for women who may be slightly older and at the reproductive age where delaying pregnancy may have an adverse effect on fertility.
A concrete example of how the pandemic has affected fertility is evident as we encounter situations where women may defer starting a prescription oral contraceptive or lapse in its use because they have had difficulty coordinating visits with health care providers and may fear picking up prescriptions from pharmacies. We also have seen that procedures such as IUD placements have been deferred or canceled, or that some patients decline trips to the hospital or clinic to receive this type of service. These new barriers to access of contraception may require more planning at this time so that decisions about family planning are by design and not default during a time as complicated as the current public health crisis.
Telemedicine: telepsychiatry and obstetrics virtual visits
While wide-scale use of telemedicine platforms was not the standard day-to-day practice in either obstetrics or psychiatry prior to the pandemic, telepsychiatry has come up to speed within a short number of weeks. At our institution, 85% of outpatient visits are being conducted remotely, with in-person visits being reserved for only urgent or emergent visits. Our inpatient psychiatry service remains a setting where psychiatric patients, regardless of their COVID-19 status, can receive necessary care.
The use of telemedicine and specifically telepsychiatry is critical to mitigate the likelihood of exposure to SARS-CoV-2. On our reproductive psychiatry service, it has actually been an opportunity to engage with patients for comprehensive initial consults about reproductive safety of psychiatric medications currently being taken, or for ongoing consultation and direct patient care during follow-up visits during pregnancy to see that patients are sustaining emotional well-being or have changes for treatment implemented if they are not well. An increased frequency of visits allows us more opportunity to capture any signs of early clinical worsening of symptoms that might have been missed previously using the more traditional in-person setting.
Telepsychiatry and “virtual visits” have allowed us to do real-time, nimble modifications of treatment regimens with both pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic interventions to keep women well and to keep them out of the hospital for psychiatric care as often as possible. It also has facilitated a closer collaboration with our colleagues in obstetrics. In a way, the team of providers, including psychiatrists, obstetrical providers, social workers, and therapists can more easily communicate virtually than has sometimes been the case previously, when day-to-day use of telemedicine and virtual team meetings was less common.
Recognition and treatment of anxiety in perinatal patients
Even pregnant women without preexisting anxiety disorders may have heightened anxiety during usual times, and women and their partners cope with this typically in numerous ways including participation in peer-support opportunities, wellness and self-care activities, leveraging support from care providers, and engaging with family. But the previously “typical pregnancy experience” has shifted in the context of COVID-19. Specifically, added concerns of pregnant women about becoming infected, of potential separation from family if they do become ill, or of separation from partners or support systems during labor and delivery (an issue that has been largely resolved in many hospitals), as well as the possibility that a neonate might become ill with exposure to the coronavirus are obviously understandable and real. Such contingencies are unsettling, even for the most settled of our patients. Labor and delivery plans, and plans for outside help from family or others with the baby and older children in the postpartum period, have been upended for many patients.
These are anxious times. The number of nonpharmacologic virtual interventions available to mitigate anxiety are filling email inboxes daily. Curating these options can be a challenge, although several resources are worth noting, such as our department’s page on mental health resources.
During these past weeks, we have seen growing numbers of women for whom the normative anxiety of pregnancy is increasing to the point of causing distress to the level of functional impairment. Many patients for the first time meet criteria for frank anxiety disorders. These patients deserve prompt evaluation by mental health professionals and treatment with evidence-based therapies for anxiety disorders whether nonpharmacologic or pharmacologic so as to mitigate the risk of untreated anxiety on maternal and fetal well-being and also to limit risk for postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety disorders.
Miscarriage and infertility
A 36-year-old patient came to see me in clinic in late January following a miscarriage. She had a history of a previous miscarriage a year before and had an episode of major depression to follow for which she received treatment with an antidepressant and cognitive-behavioral therapy; she also attended a perinatal loss support group. She saw me in early March, anxious to try to conceive but extremely concerned about the risks associated with becoming pregnant at this point in time. Following a lengthy discussion with me and her obstetrician, the patient decided to wait until “the curve flattened” in Boston in terms of new cases of COVID-19, and then start trying to conceive. The case of another patient with a very similar history was presented at our rounds a few weeks ago; she also elected to defer attempts to conceive until life is more settled.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic examples of the impact of COVID-19 on fertility has been for those women with plans to pursue treatment with one of the assisted reproductive technologies. They have been told that professional societies have made recommendations regarding use of assisted reproductive technologies that are not entirely consistent across the country, but where in many places such interventions have been suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. For many women near the end of their reproductive years, delays in trying to conceive either with or without the aid of fertility treatments may indelibly shape their plans to have children.
Sustaining emotional well-being across pregnancy
Because most psychiatric disorders are chronic in course, it is often the situation where women are treated to wellness for serious psychiatric disorders, with the goal of maintaining wellness across pregnancy and the post partum. One of the most critical takeaway points from 30 years of working with psychiatrically ill pregnant women is the maxim that keeping women well during pregnancy is simply imperative. Maternal psychiatric well-being during pregnancy is a strong predictor of obstetrical and neonatal outcomes, postpartum mental health, and longer-term neurobehavioral outcomes in children. Critically, in the context of the pandemic, keeping women out of psychiatric crises mitigates the necessity of visits to urgent clinical settings such as EDs and psychiatric inpatient units, which can increase the likelihood of exposure to the coronavirus.