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How well did pregnant Quebecers hold up during the pandemic’s first wave?

The Gazette logo The Gazette 2020-10-16 Susan Schwartz, Montreal Gazette
a woman wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: “My hypothesis is that the pandemic was impacting pregnant women’s mental health more than other disasters previously and, depending on where you resided, you were affected differently,” says Dr. Anick Bérard. © Provided by The Gazette “My hypothesis is that the pandemic was impacting pregnant women’s mental health more than other disasters previously and, depending on where you resided, you were affected differently,” says Dr. Anick Bérard.
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Quebecers who were pregnant between March and the end of August, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic , seem to be doing better than women elsewhere in Canada in terms of depressive symptoms, according to preliminary results of a Montreal-led international study on women, pregnancy and the pandemic.

But they are doing considerably worse than women who were pregnant during the 1998 ice storm, based on measures of their depressive symptoms made using the same standardized scale.

During the pandemic’s first wave, 45 per cent of pregnant women in Quebec showed moderate to severe depressive symptoms — “twice what we found during the ice storm,” said Dr. Anick Bérard, the study’s principal investigator. Bérard is a researcher at the Ste-Justine Hospital research centre and a professor of epidemiology in the Université de Montréal’s faculty of pharmacy.

“My hypothesis is that the pandemic was impacting pregnant women’s mental health more than other disasters previously and, depending on where you resided, you were affected differently,” said Bérard. One goal of the study, being conducted by the Université de Montréal and Ste-Justine Hospital, is to quantify that effect.

One reason Quebec women are doing better could be that the province was more severely affected by the pandemic, and affected earlier, so public health policies were more restrictive and introduced earlier than in other provinces, Bérard said.

These policies may have provided a kind of official safety net and lessened anxiety, she said. The pandemic is unprecedented in its scope, but “we are all in the same boat, as our politicians say. Maybe that has an impact in terms of the relief it provides,” she said.

Public health messaging in Ontario began later and was “on and off,” compared with Quebec. And in Manitoba, Bérard has learned from colleagues participating in the study , there have been fewer cases of COVID-19 and fewer ramifications such as school closings.

Co-investigators in the study include  Suzanne King , a professor of psychiatry at McGill University and a researcher whose work includes Project Ice Storm , which is following more than 180 people whose mothers were pregnant during the ice storm. Other co-investigators include scientists in several Canadian provinces, the United States, France, Qatar, Congo and South Africa.

The study, known as the Conception Study, is collecting information through an online questionnaire. Recruiting is being done in English and French on social media, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram; women can also access the survey directly at surveymonkey.com/r/conceptionglobal .

So far the study has had 2,500 participants, and researchers hope to recruit at least 5,000. Anyone who is pregnant is eligible; women who have given birth since March 13 are also being included. The majority of participants so far have been Canadian, with 30 per cent from Quebec.

The study could have ramifications for public health guidelines and hospital policies, Bérard said. During the first wave, for instance, parents who were in the neonatal intensive care unit had limited access to their infants.

Many of the 267 women who responded to an unrelated survey of new and expectant mothers reported high stress levels during the pandemic, caused in part by such factors as an increase in induced labour and the fact that their birth coaches were often not permitted to attend their delivery.

Bérard said she wants to provide data to public health authorities as quickly as possible, “because the more information you give people, the better equipped they are to make informed decisions, and that decreases stress.”

sschwartz@postmedia.com

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