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The Royal Ottawa research prize recognizes ‘intergenerational impact’ of a mother’

The Royal Ottawa research prize recognizes ‘intergenerational impact’ of a mother’s mental wellness

Dr. Simone Vigod says efforts to improve the mental health of a pregnant woman — before the child is born — can have an “intergenerational impact.”

The recognition Toronto psychiatrist Dr. Simone Vigod is receiving for her research into the connection between a pregnant mother’s mental wellbeing and her child is coming at an opportune time.

Vigod says she is honoured to be the recipient of the 2021 Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize for mental health research, awarded last week by The Royal Ottawa, “to an outstanding mental health researcher enabling future exploration and discovery.”

Vigod said in a phone interview that, while there have been ample studies and research into the effects of postpartum depression, efforts to improve the mental health of a pregnant woman — before the child is born — can have an “intergenerational impact.”

In a recently published study, Vigod, a senior scientist with the Women’s College Research Institute in Toronto, examined patterns in data over the previous four years concerning women seeking postpartum treatment and compared that to nine months of pandemic-era data beginning in March 2020.

“We saw there was a 30-per-cent increase across the board in use of services for depression, anxiety and for substance-use disorders from nine months of data starting in March 2020,” Vigod said.

“The biggest safeguards against developing postpartum mental illness are social supports and having appropriate treatment, and not having life stressors. So normally there might be grandparents, circles of friends and agencies and public-health nurses coming to the home to help breastfeed or help provide that support, and all of those things were just absent.

“And, with the added stress of potentially getting sick (with COVID-19),” Vigod said, “at one point our clinic was getting three times the (pre-pandemic) number of referrals.”

Vigod’s research is focusing on the unique life stage leading up to, during and after pregnancy where mental illness poses risks to both parent and child. Despite recent progress in mental health research, she said, there is still much work to be done to eliminate barriers to care.

“One of the main issues is very few women who are affected by mental health issues receive the treatment that is required to get them better, and we know that will have a number of implications for the mother,” Vigod said.

“This is at a time where she already has a growing fetus that can be directly affected by the mother’s mental health issues, whether that’s stress-related or because she’s not sleeping well or eating well, and we know that untreated mental health illness during pregnancy can result in more complications and issues with a child’s development throughout the lifespan.

“The problem is most women don’t seek or get treatment, and some of that has to do with shame and stigma, but part of it is that it’s difficult to get specialized psychotherapy care, and those resources usually only exist in large urban centres … it’s not equitable access across regions.”

Vigod and her team are now recruiting nearly 600 women and following them through their pregnancies and through the postpartum phase for a large-scale study, which Vigod said should lead to reduced postpartum depression and better outcomes for children.

The Royal-Mach-Gaensslen national prize provides $100,000 in funding to Canadian researchers under age 45 who have demonstrated accomplishment in research, excellence in scientific rigour, innovative thinking, imagination, originality and a clear ability to work in partnership with other disciplines and research teams.

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