A significant number of women in 12 countries including Israel who were pregnant, and during the year after giving birth amid the COVID-19 pandemic, suffered from depression, according to a large international study headed by Israeli researchers.
The countries studied, most of them European, were: Israel, Albania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Brazil and Chile. Researchers questioned 7,642 women worldwide, including 730 Jewish and Arab-Israeli women.
In the local part of the research, the team found that 58% of Arab women reported significant symptoms of depression compared with 36% of Jewish women. The incidence of postpartum depression symptoms was three times as high among unemployed women.
The research in Israel was conducted by Dr. Samira Alfayumi-Zeadna from the Center for Research and Promotion of Women’s Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, together with Dr. Rene Bina and Dr. Drorit Levy from Bar-Ilan University.
The factors associated with significant symptoms of depression were the presence of symptoms of anxiety, unemployment and stress from the new coronavirus. Another factor was an adverse change in the provision of medical supervision during pregnancy and childbirth in the health funds’ women’s health centers, gynecologist clinics and well-baby (tipat halav) clinics.
This problem was associated with a 3.5-fold increase in depression. Also, women who were under higher pressure from the pandemic were four times more likely to experience depression than those who were only slightly stressed by the virus.
The prenatal period, the authors noted, is the time with the highest risk for women to develop emotional distress. In general, in periods before the pandemic, about 15% of women in the prenatal period develop emotional distress (mainly depression and/or anxiety). Because the coronavirus is a unique stressor, it has the potential to have negative and more serious consequences for pregnant and postpartum women and their babies.
The presence of women in the home during the closures greatly reduced the social and family support, noted Alfayumi-Zeadna.
“Add to this the fear of being infected during pregnancy or that the baby would be infected as well as fear of the consequences of the virus on the fetus.” There were also economic consequences that also triggered depression and anxiety during pregnancy and after childbirth, such as women who did not return to work or whose husbands lost their jobs.
The aim of the study was to examine the influence of women’s personal experiences and community resources in the prenatal period during the pandemic on the development of emotional distress.
Findings from the international data, which include all the countries that participated in the study, included the fact that women who were pregnant for the first time were less depressed than those who were in their second or later pregnancies.
In addition, those who had been exposed to the virus, whether they themselves became ill or someone in their family became ill, were more likely to experience significant depressive symptoms. Women who lived in countries with more COVID-19 deaths were more likely to experience depression than women in countries with lower mortality rates.
In countries with a lower IDHI score – with more inequality in health, education and income – the symptoms of perinatal depression were more acute than in countries with less inequality.
In countries with fewer government restrictions due to the pandemic, depression levels were higher among pregnant women. For women after childbirth, the picture is more complex, but with a similar tendency.