Post-partum depression is a global problem, and that's never been more apparent.
Today, Canada joins the U.S. and Australia in the largest international postpartum depression (PPD) study to date that’s using smartphones and ‘spit kits’ to collect data and DNA samples from women who have suffered from PPD and postpartum psychosis (PPP).
"We will be using the Postpartum Depression Action Towards Causes and Treatments App (PPD ACT) to gather information to help understand the genetic link of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis," says Dr. Simone Vigod, principal investigator and psychiatrist at Women’s College Hospital (WCH) in Toronto.
"Our goal is to use this data to develop preventative strategies and targeted treatments for women who are at risk of developing these mental health challenges."
The PPD ACT was designed by the PACT Consortium, an international group of clinicians and scientists dedicated to studying PPD and PPP with the goal of pinpointing genes that may contribute to a woman’s risk of PPD.
"What is so novel about PACT is that we are recruiting women online to make it as easy for women to participate as possible," says Dr. Vigod. "That way we can collect as many samples as possible in the shortest amount of time."
Once the app has been downloaded, part one of the study asks a series of questions based on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, which many physicians use to diagnose PPD.
Questions include things like, "Did you feel overwhelmed?" "Did you blame yourself unnecessarily when things go wrong?" "Did you feel sad or miserable?" "Were you anxious or worried for no good reason?"
"There is a good chance that there are genetic markers that can help us either predict who is at risk for developing it, or even help us figure out new ways to treat it”
Participants receive a score and links to mental health resources within their community. A score of 13 or above, however, qualifies participants to move on to part two, in which a home-based saliva collection kit or ‘spit kit’ is mailed out to their home in order to provide a DNA sample and mail it back.
"We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate, given how rural much of Canada is," says Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, director of the Perinatal Psychiatry Program at the University of North Carolina Center for Women’s Mood Disorders and lead researcher for the U.S. study. “It’s a perfect way to reach women near and far.”
The U.S. and Australia have reached 14,000 women with the app since it launched in those two countries a year ago. The U.S. has sent out 5,000 spit kits and has received “thousands” back for analysis, and the researchers hope to reach 100,000 women worldwide.
PPD affects up to 15 per cent of Canadian women and can result in chronic depression, child emotional and behavioural disorders and suicide. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of understanding as to the causes of PPD, including why some women are affected and others aren’t. Factors such as a past history of depression, life stressors and poor social support only account for 30 per cent of the risk variance.
“We know from previous research that postpartum depression tends to run in families,” explains Dr. Vigod. “So there is a good chance that there are genetic markers that can help us either predict who is at risk for developing it, or even help us figure out new ways to treat it.”
Jamie Belsito experienced a variation of PPD symptoms after the births of both of her daughters, and thinks the intimacy of the app is particularly smart.
"I would have welcomed an application in the privacy of my own home, at my fingertips, to potentially help target the ‘what and why’ of this temporary mental health challenge," says Belsito in a press release from the UNC. Belsito is a patient and Advocacy Chair of the National Coalition for Maternal Mental Health.
"In addition to gathering valuable data, PPD ACT is also starting a much-needed dialogue to help eradicate the stigma often associated with PPD, and to encourage more providers to thoroughly screen for and treat PPD."
"PPD ACT is also starting a much-needed dialogue to help eradicate the stigma often associated with PPD."
Funding was made available to run a demo of the app in Canada by WCH in affiliation with the University of Toronto. If enough Canadian women participate before the funding runs out in the next two years — 2,000 to be exact — they hope to expand the study and make it available in French and for download on Android phones (it's currently only available for iPhones).
With the U.S. and Australia launching their Android versions today, and Denmark and the U.K. joining the study later this year, the study is spreading far and wide — and will hopefully help many women along the way.