Maternal Mental Health Month Shines Light on Need for Policy Solutions

May is a month for moms: we celebrate Mother’s Day, it’s maternal mental health awareness month, and Congressional leaders chose May to reintroduce the Black Maternal Health Momnibus, a group of a dozen bills designed to address all facets of the Black maternal mortality crisis.

Giving birth and taking care of a young child is undoubtedly physically demanding, however, based on several new resources released this month, it is clear that there is a tremendous need for better maternal mental health support during and after pregnancy as well.

Access to mental health care is a challenge for people of all ages, but it has particular importance for new mothers: about 1 in 8 new mothers experience mood and anxiety disorders during pregnancy or postpartum, and rates are higher among low income moms. Half of pregnant women with depression were not treated, which puts them, their babies, and their families at risk of harm. Research shows that babies whose primary caregivers are experiencing depression are at greater risk of developmental and behavioral delays, and pregnant women experiencing depression are more likely to deliver their babies prematurely.

Maternal mortality data analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that mental health conditions are among the most common underlying causes of maternal death, and the leading underlying cause of maternal death for American Indian/Alaska Native people, Hispanic people and non-Hispanic White people.

State and federal policy can help address these challenges, but, as new state report cards from the Policy Center for Maternal Mental Health show, most states are falling short of the need for perinatal mental health support. In a first-of-its-kind analysis of the state of maternal mental health in America, researchers found wide gaps in the need for perinatal mental health care and the current capacity of the health care system to meet their needs.

The researchers scored states on several domains, including provider capacity, screening and treatment coverage, Medicaid expansion and 12 months of postpartum Medicaid coverage, and requirements for managed care organizations to collect HEDIS performance metrics on prenatal and postpartum care.

Overall, researchers found that states do not have enough therapists and psychiatrists with specialties in maternal mental health disorders, they lack treatment programs and community-based mental health resources for new moms, they do not require providers to screen for maternal mental health disorders and states do not hold health insurance plans to quality standards related to maternal mental health services.

Scores ranged from a high of B- in California to failing grades in 16 states. You can view your states’ report card here. These gaps are particularly important for policymakers to address as more than half the states implement 12 months of Medicaid postpartum coverage in the coming months. Among the options state Medicaid agencies have are to target maternal mental health services for increased reimbursement rates or create other incentives to increase the number of mental health care providers available to support new mothers in the perinatal period.

Also illustrating the need for more support for mental health support for new moms, the national maternal mental health hotline marked its first anniversary on Mother’s Day this month and data released by HRSA shows that people are using it. The hotline served about 12,000 people in its first 11 months, HRSA reported, with steady increases each month since it launched last May. Most people who called or texted the hotline had recently brought home a new baby, and were calling related to their concerns about depression, anxiety and feeling overwhelmed. Leaders of the Congressional Maternity Care Caucus  recently requested more detailed information about the hotline’s performance to be released by the end of the summer.

Anyone can call or text the free, 24/7 hotline at 1-833-TLC-MAMA, or 1-833-852-6262.

Maternal mental health conditions are normal and treatable, and with time-sensitive interventions and support, new parents can be well. Given the importance of the time-sensitive prenatal, postpartum and early childhood years, advocates and policymakers can take the opportunities highlighted in the report cards and the hotline to make improvements that support the healthy development of moms and babies together.

Maggie Clark is a former staff member at the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy’s Center for Children and Families.