Skip to Content

DU Professors to Study Effects of Prenatal Counseling on Postpartum Depression

Back to News Listing


Emma Atkinson

News  •
pregnant woman cradling belly

Reducing the risk of postpartum depression for current and future mothers is the goal of University of Denver psychology professors Elysia Davis and Galena Rhoades, who are embarking on a five-year study on the efficacy of prenatal counseling.

Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the goal of the research is to support expectant mothers through mental health challenges and prepare them for the transition to motherhood.

“Broadly, the idea is that if we provide tools and support in pregnancy, we can reduce the risk of developing postpartum depression after the baby's born,” said Davis.

Davis and Rhoades, in partnership with Denver Health Hospital, will recruit 900 pregnant women over the next five years to receive mental health counseling as part of their obstetric and gynecological care at the hospital. The women will be placed in either in-person or virtual group counseling.

“Ultimately, what we hope we will see is that, regardless of the modality of intervention, a short prevention program can prevent postpartum depression or reduce symptoms of depression that so many women experience after having a baby,” Rhoades said.

The group counseling is a form of interpersonal psychotherapy which is combined with parenting support and preparation for the birth of the baby— tailored specifically to expectant mothers. Once the mothers have participated in the prenatal counseling sessions, the research team will follow them for one year postpartum to examine whether virtual and in-person counseling are equally beneficial.

Anyone who is pregnant, a Denver Health patient and speaks Spanish or English is eligible to enroll.

“It's not based on a diagnosis or a history of depression or other specific factors that might make one more or less at risk for depression,” Rhoades said. “And part of the reason we wanted to do that is because we see such health disparities around both who has postpartum depression [and] also the treatments that are available to people with different backgrounds for postpartum depression.”

Davis said it’s important to note that because Denver Health serves the largest proportion of uninsured patients in the city, they have the opportunity to reach a large population of otherwise underserved mothers through the program.

She said it can be difficult to get mothers to participate in prenatal mental health care due to stigma and inaccessibility. But Davis and Rhoades are looking to eliminate those barriers by combining mental health counseling with the obstetric and gynecological care women are already receiving.

“We know that when people are pregnant, they're very motivated to take care of themselves, take care of their baby, go to their OB appointments,” Davis said. “And so it's sort of leveraging that energy and motivation by offering this additional support. That is not typically part of obstetric care, although, in my opinion, it should be, right?

“This is a time in life when many, many people need support. And we know that this transition to having a baby and all of the sort of life changes and hormonal changes that go along with it is a time of vulnerability. And so if we can do things integrated into their care to prevent depression, then that hopefully will benefit two generations—the mom and the baby.”

Ultimately, Davis and Rhoades’ goal for the program is for it to continue beyond the end date of the five-year NIMH grant, so that Denver Health can provide preventative prenatal mental health support to future expectant mothers.

“It's a time when I think people are really motivated to take care of themselves, take care of their baby; new parents are really excited to set their baby up for the best developmental life possible,” Davis said. “So that really was part of it for me—that this is a great opportunity to benefit two individuals, both the mom and the baby.”