Could text messages help moms with postpartum depression?

Research suggests that a simple text message goes a long way in supporting new moms at risk for postpartum depression.

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Photo: iStockphoto

When my now-five-year-old daughter Gillian was born, one of my first little trips with her was to the neighbourhood YMCA to meet a friend and her children for a playdate. Gillian was only a few weeks old, which meant I was sleep-deprived and still recovering from my VBAC (think: pain, incontinence, lochia). I was also silently suffering from postpartum depression.

I spent most of our playdate trying to keep a smile plastered on my face, chasing my son around the indoor climbing structure with my daughter strapped in the baby carrier. I talked about how much I loved cloth diapers (a lie), how easy breastfeeding was (a lie) and how much I loved being a mom (at the time, another lie). On the way home I couldn’t stop crying—I had to tell my son I had dust in my eyes.

Shortly after getting home I logged onto Facebook, where a message from my friend was waiting for me. “Are you sure you’re OK?” she asked.

“No,” I typed back.

I could lie in person, but behind the safety of my computer screen, I could admit the truth. As impersonal as a Facebook message might seem, it was ultimately a lifeline to my recovery. Now, a recent study out of Saint Louis University suggests there’s a strong benefit to sending supportive texts to new mothers at risk for developing postpartum depression. The results were published last month in JMIR Mental Health. 

The study explored the feasibility of helping English-speaking low-income mothers of racial and ethnic minority backgrounds through postpartum depression using text messages. More conventional treatments are often difficult for low-income mothers to complete, so the goal of the study was to discover whether texts were an affordable and well-received way in which to “cross socioeconomic boundaries and provide private support for at-risk mothers suffering from postpartum depression.” As assistant professor of paediatrics and lead author Dr. Matthew A. Broom explains, “We want to break that barrier that equates reaching out for help as weakness.”

Researchers sent the 54 mothers participating in the study supportive text messages four times a week for six months following the birth of their babies. The moms also received traditional counselling services, if they were needed. Some of the text messages were informative (“Having a routine is comforting for babies”) while others were motivational in nature (“Your happiness depends on what you do; what small thing will you do today to create happiness for yourself?”). Some messages prompted mothers to reply via text; others offered phone numbers they could call for more information.

More than 4,000 non-randomized text messages were sent out during the study period. Eighty-nine percent of moms felt that the messages were easily received and read, and 82 percent felt the messages were relevant to them personally. A solid 75 percent of the moms shared the texts with others, which I feel is one of the biggest positive outcomes of the study, because it means those at risk for PPD are sharing their feelings with others.

“The study shows us that there is another way to make contact with a group that has an extreme need,” says Broom, noting that most of the study’s participants were unmarried and did not have a deep support system.

Of course, a text message can never replace expert treatment such as therapy or medication, but if a low-cost message helps spark a conversation or makes a mom feel less alone when she’s suffering, then I hope to see similar initiatives starting here in Canada. And in the meantime, please consider messaging a new mom you know to ask her if she’s OK. You’re helping her more than you know.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

Read more:
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Antidepressants during pregnancy: Support, not stigma>

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