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Mental Illness and Pregnancy

1 Contact Hour including 1 Advanced Pharmacology Hour
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This peer reviewed course is applicable for the following professions:
Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN), Certified Nurse Midwife, Certified Nurse Practitioner, Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVN), Midwife (MW), Nursing Student, Registered Nurse (RN), Registered Nurse Practitioner
This course will be updated or discontinued on or before Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Nationally Accredited

CEUFast, Inc. is accredited as a provider of nursing continuing professional development by the American Nurses Credentialing Center's Commission on Accreditation. ANCC Provider number #P0274.


≥90% of participants will understand how to care for the pregnant woman with mental illness.


After completing this continuing education course, the participant will be able to:

  1. Identify what mental illness during pregnancy is.
  2. List signs and symptoms of mental illness during pregnancy.
  3. Prioritize treatment for patients with mental illness during pregnancy.
  4. Identify risks and complications of mental illness during pregnancy.
  5. Plan nursing care for the woman with mental illness during pregnancy.
CEUFast Inc. and the course planners for this educational activity do not have any relevant financial relationship(s) to disclose with ineligible companies whose primary business is producing, marketing, selling, re-selling, or distributing healthcare products used by or on patients.

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Mental Illness and Pregnancy
To earn of certificate of completion you have one of two options:
  1. Take test and pass with a score of at least 80%
  2. Reflect on practice impact by completing self-reflection, self-assessment and course evaluation.
    (NOTE: Some approval agencies and organizations require you to take a test and self reflection is NOT an option.)
Author:    Kelly LaMonica (DNP(c), MSN, RNC-OB, EFM)


It is estimated that as many as 20% of all women experience mood or anxiety disorders during pregnancy (MGH,2018). Nurses caring for these women must know the signs, symptoms, and treatments for mental illness during pregnancy. Some women may experience mental illness for the first time during pregnancy or after pregnancy. These women need to consult a specialist about their mental illness while pregnant. Medications may prevent relapse.

Types of Mental Illness During Pregnancy

Several types of mental illness occur during pregnancy, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Postpartum depression and psychosis are mental illnesses that can occur after delivery. Other types of psychiatric disorders in women who get pregnant are schizophrenia, drug addiction, and eating disorders. Depression and anxiety are the most common psychiatric disorders during pregnancy.

Signs and Symptoms


Prenatal depression may often be overlooked. Prenatal depression, anxiety, and stress are most frequently seen in the third trimester of pregnancy (Parcells, 2010).

 Women with depression are less likely to seek treatment than while not pregnant. Patients with depression may experience a depressed mood, loss of interest in most activities, insomnia or hypersomnia, change in appetite, agitation, low energy, poor concentration, guilt, or recurrent thoughts of death  (APA, 2013).  

 Mild to moderate depression is diagnosed with five or six symptoms, and severe depression is diagnosed with seven to nine symptoms. Pregnancy can make some of the symptoms difficult to identify because appetite or sleep may be affected by pregnancy.


Anxiety may be observed with or without depression. Anxiety is the most common issue. People with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear. Panic attacks are repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes. These feelings of anxiety and panic can interfere with daily activities and are difficult to control (Mayo Clinic, 2018).


Bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes of mania, hypomania, and depression. Rates of postpartum relapse in women with bipolar disorder range from 32 to 67 percent. Perinatal episodes of the disorder tend to be depressive (UpToDate, 2019).

Risks and Complications


There are risks to the mother and fetus for a woman who experiences depression and does not receive treatment. Suicide is a risk. Poor appetite can lead to poor nutrition, poor weight gain, weight loss, or cognitive impairment. Poor nutrition can lead to poor prenatal care and poor fetal outcomes. Psychosis, catatonia, and substance abuse may be associated with depression.


Anxiety and stress during pregnancy are associated with spontaneous abortion, preterm delivery, and delivery complications, although a direct causal relationship has not been established (Mayo Clinic, 2018).


Patients with bipolar disorder are at risk for suicidal or homicidal ideation, aggressive behavior, psychotic features, poor judgment, and impaired social functioning. Bipolar is a serious disorder that can cause harm to the mother or fetus; this requires close supervision and possible hospitalization (UpToDate, 2019).



Late in pregnancy, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been associated with transient neonatal complications. The potential risks associated with SSRI use must be weighed against the risk of relapse if treatment is discontinued. During pregnancy, treatment with SSRIs should be individualized and should ideally be discussed before pregnancy. Paroxetine (Paxil®) should be avoided by pregnant women and women who plan to become pregnant. If a woman gets pregnant while on Paxil®, fetal echocardiography should be considered. Abrupt discontinuation of this drug can be associated with withdrawal symptoms and a high rate of relapse, so a treatment plan should be followed  (ACOG, 2008). The provider should optimize dosage, and multiple or different medications may be needed. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) can be used for depression that does not respond to medication during pregnancy.


The use of benzodiazepines in women with anxiety disorders does not carry significant teratogenic risk, although long-term use can cause withdrawal symptoms in the newborn (ACOG, 2008). Benzodiazepines should not be used for longer than two weeks near term. Cognitive therapy may be useful.


The use of lithium during pregnancy has been associated with congenital cardiac malformations, fetal and neonatal cardiac arrhythmias, hypoglycemia, premature delivery, and other adverse outcomes. Long-term consequences have not been found. The decision to discontinue lithium therapy during pregnancy because of fetal risks should be weighed against the maternal risks of the illness. The physiologic changes of pregnancy may affect the absorption, distribution, metabolism, and elimination of lithium, and close monitoring is recommended. Some antiepileptic drugs are used in the treatment of bipolar disorder, including valproic acid (Depakene®), carbamazepine (Tegretol®), and lamotrigine (Lamictal®). Depakene® and Tegretol® have been shown to cause birth defects. Lamictal® is generally considered safe (ACOG, 2008).

Other Considerations


Adverse outcomes in women with schizophrenia include preterm delivery, low birth weight, placental abnormalities, increased rates of congenital malformation, and a higher incidence of postnatal death. If left untreated during pregnancy, schizophrenia can have devastating effects. Atypical antipsychotics are the first-line therapy for psychotic disorders because these drugs are better tolerated and may be more effective in managing the negative symptoms of schizophrenia (ACOG, 2008).

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders during pregnancy can cause serious complications for the mother, including poor nutrition, dehydration, cardiac irregularities, gestational diabetes, severe depression during pregnancy, premature birth, labor complications, difficulties in nursing, and postpartum depression. The fetus also has serious risks, including poor development, premature birth, low birth weight, respiratory distress, feeding difficulties, and other perinatal complications  (NEDA, 2018).  It may be difficult for these women to get pregnant. These women must see a specialist to help manage an eating disorder during pregnancy.

Postpartum Depression and Psychosis

Postpartum depression and psychosis are important in nursing when caring for postpartum moms. This depression and psychosis are separate topics that will not be discussed in the activity.

Nursing Care

Women with mental illness need to be treated without bias. These women need education, especially before getting pregnant. Medications should not be stopped abruptly during pregnancy. Ideally, a woman with mental illness should receive preconception counseling to determine her treatment during pregnancy. 

Nurses should counsel women with mental illness to cut down on other commitments when pregnant or caring for a new baby,  avoid getting involved in stressful situations, and avoid drinking alcohol and excessive amounts of caffeine because these can all interfere with sleep  (NHS, 2019). It is also essential to teach these women to look for the positive things in life, make time to rest and relax, be open about feelings, ask for help, look for local support groups, and eat well  (NHS, 2019).

During labor, delivery, and postpartum, the nurse must ensure that these women have everything explained to them to decrease anxiety. These women must know what resources are available to them. They may need home health care, support groups, and follow-up psychiatric care.

Case Study

AS is a 24-year-old G1P0 who presents to labor and delivery complaining of regular contractions for the past 6 hours. She is anxious and worried about labor. She has a history of anxiety and severe depression. She was taking Zoloft® throughout pregnancy until 32 weeks when she stopped it because she thought it could harm the baby. She has a flat affect on admission and admits to thoughts of killing herself. 

What is a priority for the RN caring for this patient?

  • It is important to keep this woman safe. Find out if she has a plan to harm herself. Make sure that she is not left alone. She may need 1:1 supervision throughout labor and postpartum. 

What else does this woman need?

  • This woman needs to go back on her medication. She should consult with a psychiatrist while in the hospital to determine a plan of care for when she is discharged. She may need social work or home health to help with the infant after discharge.

Select one of the following methods to complete this course.

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Implicit Bias Statement

CEUFast, Inc. is committed to furthering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). While reflecting on this course content, CEUFast, Inc. would like you to consider your individual perspective and question your own biases. Remember, implicit bias is a form of bias that impacts our practice as healthcare professionals. Implicit bias occurs when we have automatic prejudices, judgments, and/or a general attitude towards a person or a group of people based on associated stereotypes we have formed over time. These automatic thoughts occur without our conscious knowledge and without our intentional desire to discriminate. The concern with implicit bias is that this can impact our actions and decisions with our workplace leadership, colleagues, and even our patients. While it is our universal goal to treat everyone equally, our implicit biases can influence our interactions, assessments, communication, prioritization, and decision-making concerning patients, which can ultimately adversely impact health outcomes. It is important to keep this in mind in order to intentionally work to self-identify our own risk areas where our implicit biases might influence our behaviors. Together, we can cease perpetuating stereotypes and remind each other to remain mindful to help avoid reacting according to biases that are contrary to our conscious beliefs and values.


  • ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 92: Use of Psychiatric Medications During Pregnancy and Lactation. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2008;111(4):1001-1020. Reaffirmed Obstet Gynecol 2018, 131:185 doi:10.1097/aog.0b013e31816fd910.
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), American Psychiatric Association, Arlington, VA 2013.
  • Mayo Clinic. Anxiety disorders.  Published May 4, 2018. Accessed December 29, 2019. Visit Source.
  • MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health. Psychiatric Disorders During Pregnancy.  Published May 29, 2018. Accessed December 29, 2019. Visit Source.
  • National Eating Disorders Association. Pregnancy and Eating Disorders. Published February 22, 2018. Accessed December 29, 2019. Visit Source.
  • NHS Choices. Accessed December 29, 2019. Visit Source.
  • Parcells DA. Women’s mental health nursing: depression, anxiety, and stress during pregnancy. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing. 2010;17(9):813-820. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2850.2010.01588.x.
  • UpToDate. Accessed December 29, 2019. Visit Source.