As if creating a new life wasn’t daunting enough any day, pregnant women are now preparing to give birth in an uncertain world brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
And amid concern over how hospitals will cope unless Australians flatten the curve, it’s little wonder psychologists are reporting growing anxiety among expectant mums worried about what happens when they go into labour.
Then there’s the rumours spreading across social media, adding a whole new dimension of fear and worry.
Melbourne psychologist Dr Nicole Highet said mental health workers are battling to stop the spread of misinformation as services are inundated with calls from women and families concerned about the virus’s impact on babies.
“The most common questions we are getting from women are ‘I’m pregnant, if I get COVID-19 will I miscarry or will my baby be at risk of having a major health problem?’ and ‘What if I have a newborn and I get infected or my baby gets infected?’ [and] ‘Is it still safe to breastfeed if I’m infected?’” Dr Highet said.
Recognising the time from conception through to one year after delivery is when women are most at risk of developing mental health problems, Dr Highet – the former deputy CEO at Beyond Blue – launched the not-for-profit organisation Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE).
The centre has never been so busy in its seven years than in recent weeks.
“Already there is a high level of anxiety for pregnant women and mothers, but this has significantly increased with fears of what COVID-19 means for the woman, her baby, and her family,” Dr Highet said.
Melanie Kaye, 30, whose second child is due in June, said she is having trouble sleeping due to her concern that Australia will follow the US’s lead in restricting hospital visitors.
“I had PTSD after the birth of my son,” Ms Kaye said.
His birth was extremely traumatic. If I had been in the hospital dealing with that without my husband, I wouldn’t have gotten through it.”
Although it’s wise to read up on the risks and stay abreast of virus research, some news being shared in mothers’ groups has been found to be fake or irrelevant to an Australian context.
One of the videos circulating in recent days shows a heavily pregnant woman hospitalised in the UK due to COVID-19.
Stories of some hospitals in the US banning visitors from entering delivery wards have spread like wildfire through networks that were established to support new and expectant mums.
Bene Joseph, who is due to have her first baby in August, said she was distressed by a barrage of information – some of it false – on social media.
“I’ve unfollowed a few Facebook groups set up for women due to have babies this year,” the 26-year-old said.
“I would look into a lot of the posts and see it wasn’t even relevant to Australia.”
Dr Highet’s centre has responded by gathering and sharing the latest evidence from peak bodies for maternal health in this crisis, together with messages of reassurance and support.
Women are also being directed to the RANZCOG website.
“We don’t want people trawling through Facebook for information or tuning into sensational media,” Dr Highet said.
She said it’s important to share reassuring information from trusted sources and resources that are underpinned by national guidelines.
“The good news is that at this time, pregnant women do not appear to fall severely unwell when contracting COVID-19,” Dr Highet said.
“They have mild to moderate symptoms, and there is no evidence it negatively impacts unborn babies or that it will cause abnormalities.”
But while the virus itself may not be a major risk for otherwise healthy pregnant women, Dr Highet is worried that the fallout of the pandemic will magnify mental health triggers for new and expectant mums.
They include not having supportive networks, financial instability, family violence, and the life changes that go hand in hand with having a baby.
“Now more than ever, we need to screen new and expecting mothers to make sure they have the mental health support they need,” she said.
Her COPE team is busy adapting its digital health screening tool (iCOPE), a psychosocial questionnaire developed to help identify at-risk mothers, to make it fit for purpose in the changing health landscape.
Last year, COPE received $16 million from the federal government to roll out the screening tool in every public maternity hospital.
For privacy, the questionnaire – available in 12 languages – is completed on a tablet that sends an individual report to the woman and a clinical report to her health professional, identifying her risk factors and providing advice on mental health support.
But as hospitals move to shift face-to-face appointments online, the tool is being adapted so that the screening can be undertaken remotely via a secure link.
“One of the things we ask women after they have a baby is whether their birth experience was frightening or difficult,” Dr Highet said.
“A lot of people are going to be very frightened going into hospital or disappointed that it wasn’t the experience they wanted.
“These are all going to be magnified by the pandemic.”
The centre is also “starting to look at working with others around using this as a way for women to socially connect, but also have expert advice, and guest speakers on areas people will be worried about”.
Intervening in the social media conversation, providing quality information relevant to Australians, is a key priority.
“It’s important to focus on our national context,” Dr Highet said.
“We have taken a far more early prevention approach than [countries such as the US and UK] and focusing on them is not helpful for anxiety levels.”
Dr Highet says that friends and family of expectant and new parents can also play a powerful part in helping reduce stress.
“Whilst it is difficult, we need to be thankful that we live in a time where we have social media and can still connect with others” Dr Highet said.
“Make it an ‘occasion’ in your day to FaceTime or Skype a friend or family member and share your thoughts and feelings and support for each other. Connection is key.”
For more information about coping with COVID-19, visit www.cope.org.au. To speak to a professional, call the PANDA helpline on 1300 726 306.
This story is co-published with The Citizen, a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne.