Consider What Happens When We Don’t Care for NICU Parents

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Evidence shows it is the emotional, rather than the medical, complications of pregnancy that are most impactful on the long-term well-being of the parent and child. These emotional complications, known as perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), may occur during pregnancy until the first few years after giving birth. PMADs include the most widely known postpartum depression, as well as the lesser-known postpartum anxiety, panic disorder, postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and postpartum psychosis.

Neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) parents are particularly vulnerable to PMADs. Parents rarely expect their child to require intensive care, and the journey is emotional and unpredictable. Studies most often focus on mothers, or the birthing parent, rather than fathers or the supporting parent. However, we know that NICU parents have 28-70% higher incidences of depression. At a minimum, being separated from your child can cause distress and impaired bonding.

As a NICU nurse, I can testify that staff know parent mental health is pervasive. So why aren’t we addressing it? Unfortunately, few of us have the tools, resources, and confidence to intervene. After all we were hired to take care of babies, and adults can be intimidating, especially on such a stigmatizing topic. However, hospitals and healthcare professionals must ask ourselves: What are we missing if we do not also care for the family? Parents are the key to their child’s emotional and cognitive wellness and the effects last a lifetime, for the positive or negative. Mood disorders can be debilitating both for the individual and the family.

This year, a cross-sectional study by Cooper Bloyd, MD, MS, and fellow researchers surveyed which NICUs were incorporating mental health screening and treatment following the 2015 release of the National Perinatal Association guidelines. Among respondents, 44% routinely screened parents for disorders, most often depression. They also found that 47% offered mental health education to families, and between 3-11% employed some type of mental health specialist in their unit. The figures, they acknowledged, were likely high because of low study participation and the respondents wanting to advertise their practices.

As the National Perinatal Association outlines, mental health initiatives can be implemented with families via universal distress screening; “layered levels of support” through education, especially peer support groups; and employment of mental health professionals. Here are my recommendations for how these may be best incorporated into standard care.

Incorporate Universal Screening

Screening can be integrated by making it part of the admission and discharge educational packages. For example, when parents are filling out initial admission forms or upon discharge when families either transfer to another facility or go home with their follow-up pediatrician appointments. There are also opportunities to screen families during infant care milestones, such as 100 days in the NICU. Whenever possible, screening can be placed alongside standard information such as safe sleep and feeding education to minimize stigma. The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale is a validated screening tool specific to postpartum depression. Other useful screening tools may include the PHQ-2 for depression or PTSD-5 for trauma. Positive results should trigger follow up with a unit-based mental health provider such as a social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, psychiatric nurse practitioner, or nurse with extensive perinatal mental health training.

Additional follow up could also take the form of obstetricians reaching out to patients prior to the 6-week postpartum follow up. Screening and support should also include pediatrics, as pediatricians are in a unique position to continuing assessing the child’s development and parent-child relationship.

Education for Parents and Staff

There are many opportunities to enhance parent and staff education. Parent support groups are especially therapeutic. Parents should be welcomed in by other parents as they go through this unexpected journey together. Veteran NICU families often play an important role in facilitating and leading these groups. Parents who pump also find exceptional reward and meaning in donating breast milk back to other NICU infants.

In terms of staff, mental health education should be ongoing, as going into pediatrics means partnering with families. Patient psychosocial history and discussion about how to support families should be incorporated into daily provider rounds.

Seeing It Through With Usable Referrals

Parents who want or require psychiatric care after discharge must be referred. Most importantly, these referrals must be usable. I will argue that hospitals must guarantee NICU parents’ appointments or spots in follow up care. We cannot build the trust of these families only to refer them to help that is a dead end. Hospitals will argue it is impossible to guarantee appointments, as demand for psychiatric care is high. However, hospitals must recognize the risk of both child and parent hospital readmission if they aren’t connected to care. There is also the added benefit of building patient loyalty. Labor and delivery are where most families first interact with medical care, and a good experience can lead them to return for future care.

Of course, adding mental health staff and resources will come at a cost. As cost is an understandable concern, the value of these services can be demonstrated first in low- to zero-cost quality improvement or nurse residency projects before investing dollars. Once value is demonstrated, hospitals can leverage funding from Magnet or Baby Friendly Hospital designation budgets. Applications for these hospital designations are lengthy but worth pursing as funds are allocated for pilot projects such as these.

Final Thoughts

It is clear NICU parents need our help. My recommendations are clear and feasible, and unit staff can help integrate them into standard care practices. Hospitals have a responsibility to be part of the solution and allocate funding from existing initiatives to offset costs. Staff must be educated to support parents, and hospitals must create systems within existing infrastructure to address mental health concerns. We can no longer omit parents’ health when we care for their child.

Alexa Grooms, BSN, RN, is a neonatal intensive care nurse at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Nursing candidate in Psychiatric Mental Health at the University of Pennsylvania.

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