Looking for effective therapy for postpartum depression (PPD)? Connect with a mom who’s been through it too, findings from a new study suggest. PPD is estimated to affect up to 1 in 5 mothers and birthing parents, but just 10% receive evidence-based care to treat the condition, which can range in severity. The FDA recently approved the first pill to treat PPD, but seeking support from other moms who have struggled with PPD too could also be a powerful way to help reduce symptoms. 

A study by McMaster University followed 183 new moms over 18 months during the pandemic’s peak. Researchers discovered that women who joined virtual talk therapy groups led by moms who had recovered from PPD were 11 times more likely to see their depression lift compared to those in non-peer-led therapy groups. These findings were published in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.

Assessing group therapy for PPD

The women in the study were broken up into two groups. The first group received cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) from peers who had once experienced PPD and had since recovered, while the second received CBT therapy from traditional counselors. Both groups were in therapy for nine weeks. 

Women who had peer-led CBT saw improvements in postpartum depression and anxiety, better social support, improvements in child temperament and less anxiety about their children. The positive changes from peer-led group therapy for PPD lasted up to five months after starting treatment.

The “therapists” in the peer group weren’t professional therapists, however. They were moms who had struggled with PPD in the past who went through three days of CBT training. The sessions were observed by experts.

Of the women who received peer-led therapy, 64% had major depressive disorder when they were enrolled, and that number dropped to 6% after treatment. Of the women who received traditional treatment without peer-led support, 66% started with depression, and 43% still had symptoms nine weeks later.

Mom advice is the best advice

“This is the first time anyone has shown that peers can deliver effective group online psychotherapy for mothers with postpartum depression,” Ryan Van Lieshout, PhD, a perinatal psychiatrist and lead author of the study says in a statement. (He’s also an associate professor at McMaster University in Canada.)

“Given the number of individuals who have experienced and recovered from postpartum depression, and since this treatment is scalable and deliverable online, it has the potential to substantially improve access to effective treatment for mothers with postpartum depression,” says Dr. Van Lieshout.

Sometimes birthing parents with postpartum depression don’t feel like treatment will be effective for them unless it’s delivered by someone who has been through PPD themselves, he said to CTV News.

This isn’t the first time the McMaster research team has studied peer-led support in moms with postpartum depression. Dr. Van Lieshout conducted prior research showing that public health nurses with little to no psychiatric training were effective at helping women reduce depression and worry. The women in that trial had stable outcomes for six months after treatment.

The outcomes from both trials are encouraging, particularly in their positive impact on people’s lives.

“As somebody who has recovered, if I had this support nine and 11 years ago, I might not have had postpartum depression with my second child. I would have had resources and the opportunity to try to get ahead of it if I could,” says Lee-Anne Mosselman-Clarke, who was one of the peer facilitators.

“I think the program allows for an openness in talking and hearing others’ experiences, which takes away a very large part of the shame and the guilt around struggling with postpartum depression and anxiety.”

If you’re experiencing symptoms of sadness, irritability, guilt, loneliness and isolation, thoughts of hopelessness, changes in eating and sleeping habits, or a lack of interest in your baby, know that you’re not alone, and that there are resources and people out there who are able to help—including other moms.

Postpartum depression resources

If you’re experiencing any postpartum mood symptoms, no matter how mild, know that help is available. Reach out to your healthcare provider about next steps and potential treatment options, such as more support at home, therapy or medication. If you’re in crisis, reach out to a crisis hotline or dial 988 or 911 for immediate support.

The phone numbers listed below are available 24/7 to help you with suicidal thoughts or other mental health crises. 

Sources

Merza D, Amani B, Savoy C, et al. Online peer-delivered group cognitive-behavioral therapy for postpartum depression: A randomized controlled trial. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2023; 1-11. doi:10.1111/acps.13611