A Pregnant Pause: System-Level Barriers to Perinatal Mental Health Care

Stephanie R. Morain, Leah R. Fowler, J. Wesley Boyd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, defined as mood and anxiety disorders during pregnancy and the year following birth, affect one in five pregnant and postpartum individuals in the United States and are associated with substantial morbidity and mortality for both pregnant individuals and their infants. Despite this tremendous prevalence and associated disease burden, the overwhelming majority of those affected do not receive treatment. Although prior research has identified several patient-level barriers to effective treatment, the contributions of system-level factors have been underappreciated. We present a pilot study using a simulated patient approach to describe the accessibility and affordability of mental health care through the 18 clinics affiliated with U.S. reproductive psychiatry fellowship programs. Based on our experience, a prospective patient seeking care from these 18 clinics without a prior referral would only have been successful half of the time—and even then may have to wait as long as 2 months for an initial appointment. These data underscore the need for clinicians, public health professionals, and institutions to address system-level barriers that undermine effective referrals for care, including implementing “warm-handoffs” to mental health providers and ending practices that restrict appointments to existing patients within a health care system. They also reinforce the importance of contemporary federal policy efforts to address maternal health, particularly among low-income and racially minoritized communities. Key policies include expanding postpartum insurance coverage, which plays a critical role in reducing insurance disruptions that can undermine the accessibility of mental health care and other vital health services.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalHealth promotion practice
StateAccepted/In press - 2022


  • access to care
  • health disparities
  • health services accessibility
  • Medicaid coverage
  • perinatal mental illness
  • pregnancy
  • women’s health

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Nursing (miscellaneous)


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