A new study, published today in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, reveals that telephone-based peer support may help reduce postpartum depression in new mothers. Findings also indicate that social support from peers may be effective for maternal depression up to two years after delivery and may help overcome the stigma associated with the condition.

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“Postpartum depression is a major health concern not only for the mother, but for the child as well,” says author Nicole Letourneau, professor and Norlien/ACHF Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health in the University of Calgary Faculty of Nursing, who led a team from Alberta, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. “Treatments for postpartum depression are particularly important to prevent adverse effects on the mother-child relationship and limit the potential impact on child development.”

Postpartum depression is the period of emotional distress that typically affects a new mother within four weeks of delivery and can interfere with her ability to care for the newborn. The American Psychological Association estimates that nine to 16 per cent of women who give birth may experience postpartum depression, with that figure climbing to 41 per cent in subsequent pregnancies (Canadian data report roughly the same percentages). Previous studies indicate that postpartum depression — a major depression of at least two weeks — may occur in mothers up to two years following delivery, with rates of up to 30 per cent worldwide.

Peer volunteers have themselves recovered from postpartum depression

Registered nurses screened the 64 mothers involved in the project and also trained the peer volunteers who themselves had recovered from postpartum depression. The average age of mothers was 26 years, with 77 per cent reporting depressive symptoms prior to pregnancy and 57 per cent having pregnancy complications. There were 16 women (35 per cent) who were taking medication for depression since the birth.

The non-judgmental support mothers receive is key, says Letourneau. “Peer volunteers understand what depressed mothers are going through, offer hope and guidance in a non-stigmatizing way.” Letourneau adds that nurses played a vital role, not only for the training of the peer volunteers, but in helping peers feel safe and supported throughout the program. “Nurses stepped in to help when mothers in the program needed to be assessed for health risks, such as suicidality. Nurses also regularly debriefed with the peer volunteers to make sure they were managing the sometimes tricky situation they helped depressed mothers face.”

This research was funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research, the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation and in-kind support from Sykes Telecare.

The study, “Quasi-experimental evaluation of a telephone-based peer support intervention for maternal depression,” will be published online in the Journal of Advanced Nursing