Women’s mental health before, during and after pregnancy is vital to the mental health of the baby and the family, says Dr. Simone Vigod, winner of the 2021 Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize.

Dr. Vigod is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and holds the Shirley A. Brown Memorial Chair in Women’s Mental Health Research at the Women’s College Research Institute.

Dr. Vigod’s research in this area is changing mental health care for women in the peri-natal period. She emphasizes bringing her research from the bench to the bedside — “closing the gap between what we know and what we do.”

Her research has focused on

  • the extent of mental health problems in pregnant women,
  • their effects on mother and baby health,
  • the need for and safety of treatment during pregnancy,
  • novel treatments for women in the peri-natal period.

Dr. Vigod has conducted studies using epidemiologic databases to determine the extent of mental health problems. She says about one-fifth of women experience mental health problems during pregnancy, but only about one-fifth of that group get some form of treatment. The lack of treatment may be due to several factors, including stigma, shame, guilt, and lack of access to treatment.

She has studied how women make decisions about treatment with psychotropic drugs, weighing the benefits of treatment against the low but real risk to the fetus.

Treatment is crucial, she says, and Canada needs a perinatal mental health strategy to ensure no mother suffering with mental health problems goes untreated. But that’s not an easy goal. Dr. Vigod is leveraging new technologies to try to find answers.

For women with depression during pregnancy, she is studying transcranial direct current stimulation, which involves applying a weak electrical current to the brain. This is a safe therapy for mother and baby, approved through Health Canada’s rigorous process, that appears to have good results.

She is also using online therapies for women who might not have access to therapists because of their location or because the stigma associated with therapy makes them hesitant. At Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, she started “Mother Matters,” an online psychotherapy group guided by a therapist. Women can sign on any time, discuss their issues with each other, all in a supportive, anonymous setting.

She has also piloted an online decision aid to help pregnant women decide whether to take antidepressants during pregnancy. That decision aid proved successful in women across Canada and is now being adapted for other countries.

Vigod believes that helping women during this unique phase of life also helps whole families. “If we improve the mental health of mothers, we also improve the health of everyone across the generations.”

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