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distressed woman holding baby

When depression lingers after the NICU

distressed woman holding baby

Roughly half a million babies end up in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) each year in the U.S., often sending their parents on a wild emotional rollercoaster. Like other new parents, many parents feel symptoms of depression when their child leaves the NICU. For the majority, these depressive symptoms lift over time. But for others, depression can persist, affecting their well-being and relationships, including those with their new babies.

Thus far, it’s been unclear which parents are at a higher risk for this lasting depression. However, a new study led by Children’s researchers and presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies 2018 annual meeting suggests that parents whose depression lingers six months after their child’s NICU discharge tend to share certain demographic characteristics: They’re younger, have less education and care for more than one child.

“Using a validated screening tool, we found that 40 percent of parents in our analyses were positive for depression at the time their newborn was discharged from the NICU,” says Karen Fratantoni, M.D., M.P.H., a Children’s pediatrician and the lead study author. “It’s reassuring that, for many parents, these depressive symptoms ease over time. However for a select group of parents, depression symptoms persisted six months after discharge. Our findings help to ensure that we target mental health screening and services to these more vulnerable parents,” Dr. Fratantoni adds.

The study is an offshoot from “Giving Parents Support (GPS) after NICU discharge,” a large, randomized clinical trial exploring whether providing peer-to-peer parental support after NICU discharge improves babies’ overall health as well as their parents’ mental health.

Mothers of preterm and full-term infants who are hospitalized in NICUs are at risk for peripartum mood disorders, including postpartum depression. The Children’s research team sought to determine how many parents of NICU graduates experience depression and which characteristics are shared by parents with elevated depression scores.

They included 125 parents who had enrolled in the GPS clinical trial in their exploratory analyses and assessed depressive symptoms using a 10-item, validated screening tool, the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D). Eighty-four percent of the parents were women. Nearly 61 percent of their infants were male and were born at a median gestational age of 37.7 weeks and mean birth weight of 2,565 grams. The median length of time these newborns remained in the NICU was 18 days.

When the newborns were discharged, 50 parents (40 percent) had elevated CES-D scores. By six months after discharge, that number dropped to 17 parents (14 percent).Their mean age ranged from 26.5 to 30.6 years old.

“Parents of NICU graduates who are young, have less education and are caring for other children are at higher risk for persistent symptoms of depression,” says Dr. Fratantoni. “We know that peripartum mood disorders can persist for one year or more after childbirth so these findings will help us to better match mental health care services to parents who are most in need.”

An American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ committee opinion issued May 2018 calls for all women to have contact with a maternal care provider within the first three weeks postpartum and to undergo a comprehensive postpartum visit no later than 12 weeks after birth that includes screening for postpartum depression and anxiety using a validated instrument.

Study co-authors include Lisa Tuchman, M.D., MPH, chief, Children’s Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine Division; Randi Streisand, Ph.D., Children’s interim chief of Psychology and Behavioral Health; Nicole S. Herrera; Katherine Kritikos and Lamia Soghier, M.D., Children’s neonatologist.

Lee Beers

Mental health screenings increase in practices with hands-on support

Lee Beers

A new study suggests many more pediatricians would make mental health screenings an integral part of a child’s annual checkup if they received training and support through a proven and powerful method used to improve health care processes and outcomes.

Results of the multidisciplinary study led by Children’s National Health System and published in Pediatrics, showed screening rates improved from one percent to 74 percent during the 15-month study. A total of 10 pediatric practices and 107 individual providers in the Washington, D.C., area voluntarily participated in the study.

“This study is an important first step towards early identification of children with mental health concerns,” says Lee S. Beers, M.D., the study’s lead author. “If you identify and treat children with mental health concerns earlier, you’re going to see better outcomes.”

In this country, approximately 13 percent of youth live with a serious mental illness, but only about 20 percent of them get the help they need, according to the D.C. Collaborative for Mental Health in Pediatric Primary Care. 

While many pediatricians agree that early mental health screenings are important, the researchers found that few providers were actually conducting them. In the past, primary care providers have cited a shortage of pediatric mental health providers, a lack of time, insufficient resources and lower reimbursements.

To address the lack of mental health screenings, researchers decided to test whether the Quality Improvement (QI) Learning Collaborative model, which was pioneered in the mid-1990s to scale and improve health care services, would help study participants integrate screenings into their practices.

The QI Learning Collaborative model takes a more hands-on approach than the typical “once and done” study, says Beers. Specifically, the participating primary care providers received periodic check-ins, ongoing support, monitoring and technical assistance. “We use rapid cycles of evaluation to see what’s working and what’s not working, and we keep going,” Beers says.

Dr. Beers is optimistic about how well the practices performed, adding the caveat that more information is needed about the burden it could place on already bustling pediatric practices. In addition, she says, “future research will be needed to determine whether identifying mental health issues also leads to improved access to care and outcomes for pediatric patients.”

Dr. Beers serves as medical director for Municipal and Regional Affairs at the Child Health Advocacy Institute (CHAI), part of Children’s National. CHAI is a founding member of the D.C. Healthy Communities Collaborative (DCHCC), which partnered on the study with the Georgetown University Medical Center and the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development.