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depressed mom holding baby

New grant to help establish maternal mental health telehealth program

depressed mom holding baby

Children’s National has received a $76,000 grant from the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) which will allow a cross-functional team of neonatologists and psychologists to establish a parental mental telehealth program.

Worldwide about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth experience a mental health disorder, primarily depression, according to the World Health Organization.

“This is a topic that is quickly garnering attention but remains extremely underfunded,” says Lamia Soghier, M.D., F.A.A.P., C.H.S.E., medical director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children’s National Hospital. “We tend to focus on the babies but don’t pay enough attention to the parents.”

Dr. Soghier’s focus has been on NICU parents who experience postpartum mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), often due to their uniquely stressful experiences.

“We have been screening on a small scale for many years and have noticed a 33-45% rate of postpartum depression symptoms in our NICU families,” she says.

Maternal mental disorders are treatable with effective screening and interventions. Children’s National has received a $76,000 grant from the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) which will allow a cross-functional team of neonatologists and psychologists to establish a parental mental telehealth program to expand screening and provide diagnosis, therapy and counseling to NICU parents who experience postpartum mood and anxiety disorders.

Dr. Soghier, along with Ololade ‘Lola’ Okito, M.D., neonatologist at Children’s National, and Erin Sadler, Psy.D., psychologist in the Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health at Children’s National, discuss the importance of this work.

Q: Tell us more about the program you’re establishing.

A: Dr. Soghier: This program will allow us to hire a licensed psychologist who will see families both in the NICU and through follow-up telehealth visits. It provides a one-stop shop for our families, which is particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. The grant will also allow us to develop an iPad loaner program to give loaner iPads to low income families who do not have access to a device or to reliable internet services so that they can receive therapy at home.

Dr. Sadler: We’ll be examining how the implementation of these services can increase accessibility and reduce barriers that prevent assessment and initiation of crucial mental health services for at-risk mothers. Our partnerships will be key. Mothers experiencing barriers to participating in care services in the NICU will also have access to an in-house, licensed psychologist through telehealth services within the comfort of their homes. Families experiencing problems accessing telehealth technology due to economic limits would get the loaner iPad. We’re meeting our families where they are in order to provide these critical services.

Q: Why is grant funding to important in this space?

A: Dr. Okito: Access to perinatal mental health services is limited at the local and national levels, particularly for vulnerable parents of infants admitted to the NICU. Little is known about the effect of interventions to address depression and anxiety among NICU parents, and this grant will allow us to contribute to this very important area of research.

Dr. Sadler: It is not enough to recognize the health disparities that exist amongst communities in our nation. It is imperative that we’re able to explore and examine solutions that can aid in enhancing the equity of care for children and adults alike. As Dr. Okito mentions, there is little to no research available that looks at the feasibility of the support programs we intended to put in place. We hope to create a viable model that could be used to help NICU families across the country.

Q: How is Children’s National uniquely positioned to do this work?

A: Dr. Soghier: Healthy moms and healthy dads equal happy babies. That’s why we will be taking care of the family as a whole. This is truly family-centered care and at the heart of what Children’s National is all about.

Dr. Sadler: The Children’s National NICU team has an established postpartum depression screening program. Through the piloted work, staff have identified notable barriers to universal screening, access to perinatal mental health support and the impact of PMADs on parent engagement in newborn care.  As a result, Children’s National is uniquely positioned to directly address such barriers and provide specialized care.

Q: What excites you about this work?

A: Dr. Sadler: As a specialist in perinatal and infant mental health, I look forward to being able to demonstrate the lasting impact maternal mental health services can provide for not only newborns and their families, but for care providers as well. I am excited to have additional opportunities to advocate for the integration of perinatal and infant mental health in non-traditional spaces.

Dr. Okito: I am most excited about the potential to expand universal depression screening among NICU parents. Having done this work for the past three years, I know there are limitations in screening because we’ve only been able to screen parents that are at the patient’s bedside. More screening will lead to more parents getting the referrals and services that they need.

newborn kangaroo care

Boosting parental resilience in the NICU

newborn kangaroo care

Preliminary findings from an ongoing cross-sectional study presented during the American Academy of Pediatrics 2018 National Conference & Exhibition suggests a strong relationship between resilience and the presence of social support, which may help parents to better contend with psychological distress related to their preterm infant being in the NICU.

Resilience is the remarkable ability of some people to bounce back and overcome stress, trauma and adversity. Being resilient is especially important for parents whose babies are born prematurely – a condition that predisposes these children to numerous health risks both immediately and far into the future and that often triggers a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 U.S. infants was born preterm in 2016.

Parents of these vulnerable newborns who feel less resilient may experience more symptoms of psychological distress, including depression and anxiety. However, preliminary findings from an ongoing cross-sectional study presented during the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference & Exhibition suggests a strong relationship between resilience and the presence of social support, which may help parents to better contend with psychological distress related to their preterm infant being in the NICU.

“Oftentimes, parenting a child in the NICU can be a time of crisis for families,” says Ololade A. Okito, M.D., FAAP, a Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine Fellow at Children’s National Health System who presented the preliminary study results during the 2018 AAP conference. “Studies have indicated a relationship between higher resilience and a reduction in psychological stress in other groups of people. However, it was unclear whether that finding also applies to parents of infants in the NICU.”

Because parental psychological distress can impact the quality of parent-child interactions, the Children’s research team wants to evaluate the relationship between resilience and psychological distress in these parents and to gauge whether activities that parents themselves direct, like the skin-to-skin contact that accompanies kangaroo care, helps to bolster resiliency.

So far, they have analyzed data from 30 parents of preterm infants in the NICU and used a number of validated instruments to assess parental resilience, depressive symptoms, anxiety, NICU-related stress and perceived social support, including:

The infants were born at a mean gestational age of 29.2 weeks. When their newborns were 2 weeks old:

  • 44 percent of parents (16 of 30) reported higher resilience
  • 37 percent of parents (11 of 30) screened positive for having elevated symptoms of depression and
  • 33 percent of parents had elevated anxiety.

“These early findings appear to support a relationship between low parental resilience scores and higher scores for depression, anxiety and NICU-related stress. These same parents were less likely to participate in kangaroo care and had lower social support. By contrast, parents who had more social support – including  receiving support from family, friends and significant others – had higher resilience scores,” says Lamia Soghier, M.D., FAAP, CHSE, Medical Unit Director of Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and senior study author.

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. The research team hopes to complete study enrollment in early 2019.

American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition presentation

  • “Parental resilience and psychological distress in the neonatal intensive care unit (PARENT) study.”

Ololade A. Okito, M.D., FAAP, Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine Fellow and presenting author; Yvonne Yui, M.D.; Nicole Herrera, MPH, Children’s Research Institute; Randi Streisand, Ph.D., Chief, Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health; Carrie Tully, Ph.D.; Karen Fratantoni, M.D., MPH, Medical Director of the Complex Care Program; and Senior Author, Lamia Soghier, M.D., FAAP, CHSE, Medical Unit Director, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit; all of Children’s National Health System.