One in five new mothers do not receive mental health screening, according to new research

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

As many as one in five women are not screened for mental health issues before or after giving birth, according to new research.

The finding comes at a time when up to 20 per cent of Australian women experience anxiety or depression during pregnancy or during the first year after their baby is born.

The study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, examined whether mothers were asked by health professionals about their emotional wellbeing during pregnancy and after having their baby.

The study took place between 2000 and 2017 and also examined what factors lead to women not being asked about their mental health around the time of pregnancy and childbirth.

"We mapped screening rates between 2000 and 2017 and compared them to policy initiatives and clinical practice guidelines," the authors explained.

Although there had been a dramatic increase in health professionals asking women about their mental health, the results showed there is still a huge number of women not being asked about their perinatal mental health. One in five women reported they weren't screened before or after pregnancy. This included women in high‐risk populations that had already reported emotional distress.

"Access to mental health screening for pregnant women and new mums has more than tripled since 2000, thanks largely to government investment in perinatal mental health," the authors said, adding "our surveys show there is still some way to go before every mum gets the mental health screening needed."

Dr Nicole Highet, Founder and Executive Director of the Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) says the research shows that great gains have been made with increased rates of screening. But more work needs to be done. 

"Screening is still not universal as recommended by Australia's National Clinical Practice Guidelines," Dr Highet told Essential Baby, noting that mental health issues are one of the most common complications of pregnancy. 

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Dr Highet notes that COPE is working with the government who have committed to making screening more accessible and sustainable across the healthcare sector, particularly among the most vulnerable.

"The commonwealth government have committed to rolling out COPE's innovative digital screening platform iCOPE from this year, which has proven to be not only more efficient and accurate than pen and paper approaches to screening, but also provides an opportunity for the most vulnerable to be able to access screening in their own language," she says.

"As this research highlights, we must keep working to protect the emotional and mental wellbeing of our mums."  

The women that participated in the study were selected randomly from two cohorts of women involved in the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women's Health. 

They were then asked "for your most recent pregnancy, were you asked any questions by a midwife, GP, child health nurse or other professional about your emotional wellbeing?". The responses available were never, during pregnancy, following birth or both.

The study found that though Australia's perinatal mental health screening has improved since, it's still not in line with clinical practice guidelines in 2017 when the study concluded. 

Clinical Practice Guidelines recommend screening for symptoms of anxiety and depression during pregnancy and throughout the first year of giving birth.