Mental Health Screening for Pregnant and Postpartum Women

March 19, 2014 Guest Author

Every Mother, Every Time

Suicide is a leading cause of death for women during the first year after childbirth. Currently, care providers, midwives, general and family practitioners are not mandated to screen for symptoms of mental illness, or even family history of mental illness—a known risk factor for developing perinatal (the time around childbirth) mood or anxiety issues. One-in-seven women will experience a mood or anxiety disorder during pregnancy or postpartum, yet nearly 50% remain untreated. In pregnancy, maternal mental illness negatively effects fetal development, and leads to adverse birth outcomes such as low birth weight and premature delivery. Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) can impair infant and early childhood cognitive and emotional development. Despite overwhelming empirical evidence, there is no universal mandate for care providers to screen pregnant and postpartum women for depression, anxiety, or family history of mental illness.

The current White House petition, Every Mother, Every Time, asks the federal government to take up the long needed conversation about why we don’t screen for mental illness as routine prenatal and postpartum care. The petition has garnered strong response and reaction in the maternal mental health community, and lack of response from many others. Unfortunately, as long as we remain isolated from the rest of maternal health, we run the risk of marginalizing ourselves. I have had many conversations, and tried to have conversations, with leaders in the support community regarding their concerns on signing such a petition.

Argument 1: Universal Healthcare Screening for Moms = Big Pharma

Pregnant and postpartum women are at high risk for mental health issues. Mental health screening for new moms is essential for the health of baby and mom.The argument here is this: don’t sign a petition for mandating universal screening because Big Pharma will descend on every obstetrician’s and gynecologist’s office with free samples of Zoloft. This is internalized stigma, I am afraid, and becomes a micro-aggression toward mentally ill women, and mothers in particular. By worrying about big government for other women, we inherently devalue their ability to think for themselves. We become, ironically, paternal. This argument also perpetuates the myth that medical care providers are solely shills for pharmaceutical companies. Providers are professionals. We must move beyond demonizing the whole because of the poor performance of some of the parts.

Lastly, and most importantly, it is just not true. A petition would mandate a conversation, and the evidence is clear that most women don’t want to use psychopharmacology as a first line of treatment anyway. We can actually think for ourselves and make good decisions about our mental health care. But we need access to the information. Women are doing fine adding folate to their prenatal diets—we do what we must do when given the best information. Treating pregnant and postpartum women as children who inherently need permission to access mental health screening must end.

Argument 2: No Infrastructure for Mental Health Screening of Mothers

Basically the opinion here is: don't sign the petition because screening will not solve the lack of resources available. This is the main reason to sign. One hundred thousand signatures would mandate, by law, a national conversation about the lack of resources. We would demonstrate our lack of resources by signing a petition saying we need resources. If there were mandated universal screening, mental health would be part of the normal spectrum of care, prevention, and intervention for maternal health. There is no maternal health without maternal mental health.

This article was written by:

Pregnant and postpartum women are at high risk for mental health issues. Mental health screening for new moms is essential for the health of baby and mom.Walker Karraa, PhD is a perinatal mental health researcher, advocate, and writer. She hosts the community blog:, a site dedicated to stigma against mothers with mental illness. She serves on the Wellness Advisory Council for, and is writing a book: "Postpartum Depression: Trauma and Transformation," on her research into the transformational dimensions of postpartum depression. You can find Dr. Karraa on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+.

To be a guest author on the Your Mental Health Blog, go here.

APA Reference
Author, G. (2014, March 19). Mental Health Screening for Pregnant and Postpartum Women, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 24 from

Author: Guest Author

March, 30 2014 at 7:44 pm

Hello I am almost 19 months ppd, ppa, with ocd. It's been a scary long ride I've been on (6) different antidepressants and have been in therapy since January 2013. The therapy has helped tremendously, I also see a psychiatrist for my meds. After he prescribed me klonpin,gabpentin,and trazadone I walked around crying and was worse then I had ever been. He then had me do this new swab testing that tells how your body breaks down the ssri meds. Well when I we got the results it turns out that I can't take a ssri that it makes my depression and anxiety worse. I have been on welbutrin and ativan and a mood stabilizer now for a month and still can't tell a difference. My family doctor has ran some blood test and found that my vitiam d was very low and has me taking 5000iu daily. Just a month of taking that I can tell I feel somewhat better and have more energy. I was on bed rest at 7 months (july) and delivered in September. Was off till November and was diagnosed in January with postpartum. I think that screenings should be done to possibly prevent us mothers from going through this awful war.

Walker Karraa, PhD
March, 19 2014 at 2:16 pm

Thank you Dyane for your comment. My heart breaks knowing that if you had been screened, you may have avoided so much suffering. I am inspired that you are continuing to transform your experience. And I so hope this keeps the conversation evolving...

Dyane Harwood
March, 19 2014 at 12:56 pm

I was diagnosed with Postpartum Bipolar Disorder (PPBD) eight weeks postpartum. If I had been screened during my pregnancy for mental health, so much agony that affected my family could possibly have been prevented or at least minimized. I have a very strong family history of bipolar disorder but I was never questioned about it during my pregnancy. While I believe there is a positive sea change with society's awareness of postpartum mood disorders, postpartum bipolar disorder is not mentioned alongside PPMD's. I signed and shared the current White House petition mentioned by Dr. Karraa as soon as I found out about it. Aside from telling everyone I know to please sign this groundbreaking petition, I am writing a book about my experience with PPBD: "Birth of a New Brain - Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder". My book profiles other mothers in reecovery with PPBD as well as features perinatal experts and provides resources that will help other mothers with this isolating, devastating PPMD. I commend Dr. Karraa for her bravery in helping all women get mental health screening!

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