Peer counseling may help women with postpartum depression


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Postpartum depression can be a frightening and debilitating illness facing mothers after the birth of a child. Common symptoms include having low energy, problems with memory, withdrawing, changes in diet, and feeling overwhelmed. Some women are reluctant to go on medication, however, especially if they’re breast-feeding.

But medication may not be the only remedy. A new study published online recently in the British Medical Journal found that peer counseling sessions may help mothers combat anxiety. Researchers recruited 701 at-risk Canadian women, about half of whom received telephone counseling from a community volunteer who had experienced postpartum depression and went through a four-hour training session. The other half served as a control group and were able to access standard postpartum care that included help from public health nurses, doctors, and community resources such as drop-in clinics (the counseling group also had access to these services).


A number of methods were used to assess women’s levels of depression, anxiety and other emotional states, including the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (probable postnatal depression was defined as a score of more than 12 on the scale, a commonly used evaluation of postpartum depression). Nurses followed up with all study participants at 12 and 24 weeks, but they did not know to which group the women belonged.

At the beginning of the study, led by Cindy-Lee Dennis, a nursing professor at the Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing at the University of Toronto, both groups had similar EPDS scores: 12.5 for the counseling group, and 12.62 for the control. At 12 weeks, however, the counseling group showed an improvement: 14% had a score of more than 12, while in the control group 25% had a score of more than 12. No significant differences were found at 24 weeks, but since this was a prevention trial, those who had severe depression at 12 weeks were referred to a local health department for treatment.

Women in the counseling group were also asked to evaluate their experience; out of 221 who did, more than 80% said they would recommend it to a friend.

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Myung J. Chun / L.A. Times