For the past seven years, Melbourne psychologist Dr Nicole Highet has been a woman on a mission – to debunk some of the dangerous hearts-and-flowers mythology around mothering and motherhood.
Recognising the perinatal period – from conception through to one year after delivery – is the time when women are most at risk of developing mental health problems, the former deputy CEO at Beyond Blue launched the Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE), a not-for-profit organisation providing emotional and mental health support to expectant and new mums.
With the Covid-19 crisis, COPE has spun into overdrive trying to answer the concerns of mums-to-be and young families struggling with a whole new dimension of uncertainty and anxiety, ramping up efforts to initiate online platforms to answer their questions and identify potential problems.
“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?’, ‘is it still safe to breastfeed if I’m infected?’,” says Highet.
“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.”
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.
“We don’t want people trawling through Facebook for information or tuning into sensational media,” she says.
“We need to be sharing reassuring information from trusted sources like RANZCOG (the Royal Australia New Zealand College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology) and resources which are all 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, they have mild to moderate symptoms, and there is no evidence it negatively impacts unborn babies or that it will cause abnormalities.”
But Highet is worried that the fallout of the pandemic will magnify recognised mental health triggers for new and expectant mums – such as 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.”
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 then 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,” says Highet. “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”, Highet says.
Intervening in the social media conversation, providing quality information, is a key priority. A video posted to social media by a heavily pregnant woman hospitalised in the UK due to Covid-19, and news that some hospitals in the US have banned visitors from entering delivery wards, have spread like wildfire through networks that were established to try to support new and expectant mums.
Melanie Kaye, 30, whose second child is due in June, says she is having trouble sleeping due to her concern that Australia will follow the US’s lead in restricting all hospital visitors.
“I had PTSD after the birth of my son,” Kaye explains. “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.”
Highet cautions against focussing on news from the UK and US. “It’s important to focus on our national context. We have taken a far more early prevention approach than these countries, and focussing on them is not helpful for anxiety levels.”
Bene Joseph, 26, who is due to have her first baby in August, is following this advice. She always checks RANZCOG after seeing social media posts about how Covid-19 might affect pregnant women or developing babies.
“I’ve unfollowed a few Facebook groups set up for women due to have babies this year because it really stressed me out,” she says “I would look into a lot of the posts and see it wasn’t even relevant to Australia.”.
Highet says that friends and family of expectant and new parents can play a powerful part in helping reduce stress by making sure they stay connected as best they can.
“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, have conversations, and see their faces,” says Highet.
“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.
An edited version of this story is co-published with The New Daily.