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Ky. lawmakers advance bill creating more resources for pregnancy-related depression

Kentucky Public Radio
Ryland Barton

People with postpartum and perinatal depression would have more state-sponsored resources under a bill advancing in the legislature.

Senate Bill 135 would order the state health cabinet to develop regulations to screen for postpartum and perinatal depression, and work with stakeholders to develop clinical assessment tools that would be available on the state’s website.

Republican Sen. Shelley Funke Frommeyer, of Alexandria, said therapy and other resources can be the difference between life and death for some pregnant people.

“We really understand that pregnant mothers and postpartum mothers will be less likely to suffer from pregnancy related depression and pregnancy related mental health with a greater emphasis on this need,” she said.

The Senate Committee on Family Services unanimously approved the bill on Thursday, making it eligible for a vote in the full Senate.

Kentucky has one of the highest mortality rates for pregnant people in the nation.

According to a report from the Kentucky Maternal Mortality Review Committee, 91% of maternal deaths in 2018 were "potentially preventable." The study attributed 8.4% of maternal deaths in the state to suicide and 128 were "accidental" deaths that didn’t clearly result from physical health complications.

Lawmakers have filed a slew of bills addressing maternal mental health amid concerns that many pregnancy related deaths in Kentucky are connected to behavioral disorders and substance use issues.

During a legislative hearing, clinical psychologist Ashley Belcher said mental health complications like postpartum mood disorders affect one in five women and are often not taken seriously.

“Everyone thinks that they’re just sad. They aren’t aware of the magnitude of that depression or how deep it could go. It can be a silent suffering, and people don’t want to talk about it after they come out of it,” she said.

Postpartum depression is depression that occurs in the six months following pregnancy and delivery. If the condition goes untreated, it could lead to anxiety, mood disorders and suicidal ideation for the pregnant person and impaired cognitive development and behavioral issues for children.

Experts say perinatal depression, which is depression that occurs during the pregnancy, is often overlooked while talking about maternal mental health.

Belcher said postpartum and perinatal depression doesn’t just affect the pregnant person, it also hurts their partners.

“There’s an undeniable amount of adjustment to be done to become a parent, and the stress of that triggers depression and anxiety in fathers too,” she said.

Christina Libby, a health outreach navigator with Kentucky Voices for Health, said her experience as a mother with postpartum depression made her realize how tough it was to find a medical provider who affirmed her struggles.

“It was unfortunately difficult to find anybody who both took my insurance and specialized in maternal mental health. If the time after bringing a new baby into your life is anything, it is a time of healing, and not just for your body,” she said.

Lawmakers are considering several bills this year related to maternal health, including:

  • House Bill 233, which would address mental health disparities in perinatal care.
  • House Bill 281,which would provide Medicaid coverage for new parents struggling with postpartum depression.
  • House Bill 269, which would provide depression screenings for parents.
  • House Bill 274, which would provide information on perinatal and postpartum depression as part of a voluntary statewide home visitation program.
  • House Bill 268, which would create a Perinatal Advisory Committee to provide evidence based treatment guidelines on treating perinatal mood disorders.
Divya Karthikeyan covers Race & Equity for LPM.
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