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Phone App Screens for Postpartum Depression

Woman with smartphone


18 October 2017. A new smartphone app helps detect depression among women who recently gave birth, and optionally gathers data for continued research on the disorder. The app, called the MGH Perinatal Depression Scale, or MGHPDS, is a creation of the Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

Postpartum depression is a disorder that can affect women after child birth, characterized by feelings of extreme sadness, anxiety, and exhaustion. Symptoms can range from crying frequently or for no apparent reason and feelings irritability or restlessness, to anger and rage, and frequent headaches or other pains. While postpartum depression likely results from a number of physical and emotional causes, the quick drop in estrogen and progesterone hormones in the mother’s body leads to chemical changes that could trigger mood swings. Interrupted sleep patterns after giving birth can also contribute to exhaustion and depression in the mother.

In a March 2017 article in the publication Ob.Gyn.News, Center for Women’s Mental Health director Lee Cohen called postpartum depression, or PPD, “the most common complication in modern obstetrics,” yet with few women diagnosed with the condition receiving effective care. Cohen, also a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, cited a review of 32 studies of depression during pregnancy and after child birth which report an average of 14 percent with depression during pregnancy and 16 percent after giving birth. Yet, many of the women diagnosed with depression do not receive treatment, and relatively few — 5 percent during pregnancy and 3 percent after birth — end up well.

The Perinatal Depression Scale app — “perinatal” refers to the period during pregnancy and immediately after birth — seeks to screen more systematically for the disorder by taking advantage of smartphone technology. The app asks women age 18 to 45 during pregnancy and up to 12 weeks following birth to complete questionnaires about mood, anxiety, sleep and stress. Among the instruments in the app is the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale, a 10-item scale used most often to screen for the disorder. But the app also asks about other symptoms associated with postpartum depression, such as sleep disturbance, anxiety, and perceived stress.

The app is free and downloaded from the iTunes App Store; only an iPhone version is available. Users of the app are asked to consent to sharing their responses to the questionnaires with researchers at Mass. General, to refine and better focus the data-gathering instruments. A second version of the app is in development and scheduled for release late next year.

“It is our hope,” says Cohen in a Mass. General statement, “that as screening for PPD becomes increasingly common across the U.S. and globally, easy-to-use tools like the MGHPDS, which can be readily used on smartphones and other digital devices, will lead to more accurate screening of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and to improved clinical outcomes for patients.”

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