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The experience of practicing reproductive psychiatry in the context of the pandemic has highlighted unique situations I’ve written about in previous columns that have affected pregnant and postpartum women during the pandemic, such as the management of anxiety and insomnia.

The pandemic has also seen a shift to telemedicine and an opportunity to use virtual platforms to engage with colleagues in our subspecialty across the country. These forums of engagement, which we realize virtually with so many of our colleagues, has prompted me to refine and galvanize what I consider to be some principles that guide frequently encountered clinical scenarios in reproductive psychiatry.

To open 2022, I wanted to revisit the practices I nearly “always” (or conversely, “never”) follow as a reproductive psychiatrist across the numerous clinical situations and variations on the associated clinical themes encountered as we see patients during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

Things we ‘always’ do

1. I continue to make maternal euthymia the North Star of treatment before, during, and after pregnancy.

Before pregnancy, maternal euthymia may be realized through optimization of pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic treatments and waiting to conceive until patients are emotionally well. Sustaining euthymia during pregnancy is a critical issue because of the extent to which euthymia during pregnancy predicts postpartum course. According to many studies, postpartum euthymia is the strongest predictor of long-term neurobehavioral outcome and risk for later child psychopathology. At the end of the day, there are few things I would not do with respect to treatment of maternal psychiatric disorder if the upside afforded maternal euthymia.

2. I almost always treat with consistency of medication across the peripartum period.

Although there have been discussions about the wisdom of changing medications, such as antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and mood stabilizers, that have afforded euthymia during pregnancy as patients approach their delivery date, the evidence base supporting switching medications at that time is exceedingly sparse. The time to adjust or to modify is typically not just prior to delivery unless it is to prevent postpartum psychiatric disorder (see below).

3. I simplify regimens before pregnancy if it’s unclear which medications have afforded patients euthymia.

We have a growing appreciation that polypharmacy is the rule in treatment of affective disorder for both unipolar and bipolar illness. Consultation before pregnancy is the ideal time to take a particularly careful history and think about simplifying regimens where adding medicines hasn’t clearly provided enhanced clinical benefit to the patient.

4. When making a treatment plan for psychiatric disorder during pregnancy, I consider the impact of untreated psychiatric disorder (even if not absolutely quantifiable) on fetal, neonatal, and maternal well-being.

Perhaps now more than even 5-10 years ago, we have better data describing the adverse effects of untreated psychiatric illness on fetal, neonatal, and maternal well-being.

We always try to deliberately consider the effect of a specific treatment on fetal well-being. Less attention (and science) has focused on the effect on pregnancy of deferring treatment; historically, this has not been adequately quantified in the risk-benefit decision. Yet, there is growing evidence of the increased adverse effects of activating the stress axis on everything from intrauterine fetal programming in the brain to effects on obstetrical outcomes such as preterm labor and delivery.

5. I appreciate the value of postpartum prophylaxis for pregnant women with bipolar disorder to mitigate risk of relapse.

We have spoken over the last 20 months of the pandemic, particularly in reproductive psychiatry circles, about the importance of keeping reproductive-age women with bipolar disorder emotionally well as they plan to conceive, during pregnancy, and in the postpartum period. The management of bipolar disorder during this time can be a humbling experience. Clinical roughening can be quick and severe, and so we do everything that we can for these women.

The area in which we have the strongest evidence base for mitigating risk with bipolar women is the value of postpartum prophylaxis during the peripartum period, regardless of what patients have done with their mood-stabilizing medications during pregnancy. Given the risk for postpartum disease, even though there are varying amounts of evidence on prophylactic benefit of specific mood stabilizers (i.e., lithium vs. atypical antipsychotics), the value of prophylaxis against worsening of bipolar disorder postpartum is widely accepted.

The importance of this has been particularly underscored during the pandemic where postpartum support, although available, has been more tenuous given the fluctuations in COVID-19 status around the country. The availability of friends and loved ones as support during the postpartum period has become less reliable in certain circumstances during the pandemic. In some cases, COVID-19 surges have wreaked havoc on travel plans and support persons have contracted the virus, rendering on-site support nonviable given safety concerns. Last-minute shifts of support plans have been responsible for disruption of care plans for new moms and by extension, have affected the ability to protect the sleep of bipolar women, which is critical. Keeping bipolar women well during the postpartum period with plans and backup plans for management remains critical.

Things we ‘never’ do

1. I never taper antidepressants (just prior to delivery), I never check plasma levels of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (across pregnancy, or just prior to labor and delivery), and I never use sodium valproate (during pregnancy).

Although there has been some discussion about the potential to mitigate risk for maternal or neonatal toxicity with lowering of agents such as lithium or lamotrigine during pregnancy, I do not routinely check plasma levels or arbitrarily change the dose of antidepressants, lithium, or lamotrigine during pregnancy in the absence of clinical symptoms.

We know full well that plasma levels of medications decline during pregnancy because of hemodilution with lithium and antidepressants and, in the case of lamotrigine, the effects of rising estrogen concentration during pregnancy on the metabolism of lamotrigine. While several studies have shown the decrease of SSRI concentration during pregnancy absent a change in dose of medication, these data have not correlated changes in plasma concentration of SSRI with a frank change in clinical status across pregnancy. Unlike what we see in conditions like epilepsy, where doses are increased to maintain therapeutic plasma levels to mitigate risk for seizure, those therapeutic plasma levels do not clearly exist for the psychiatric medications most widely used to treat psychiatric disorders.

We also almost never use sodium valproate in reproductive-age women despite its efficacy in both the acute and maintenance treatment of bipolar disorder given the risk of both major malformations associated with first-trimester fetal exposure to valproate and the data suggesting longer-term adverse neurobehavioral effects associated with its use during pregnancy.

2. We never suggest patients defer pregnancy based on their underlying psychiatric disorder.

Our role is to provide the best information regarding reproductive safety of psychiatric medications and risks of untreated psychiatric disorder to patients as they and relevant parties weigh the risks of pursuing one treatment or another. Those are private choices, and women and their partners make private decisions applying their own calculus with respect to moving forward with plans to conceive.

3. We never switch antidepressants once a woman has become pregnant.

Although we continue to see patients switched to older SSRIs such as sertraline with documentation of pregnancy, a patient’s road to getting well is sometimes very lengthy. In the absence of indicting reproductive safety data for any particular antidepressant, for patients who have gotten well on an antidepressant, even one for which we have less information, we stay the course and do not switch arbitrarily to an older SSRI for which we may have more reproductive safety data.

If we have the luxury prior to pregnancy to switch a patient to an untried and better studied antidepressant with more data supporting safety, we do so. But this is rarely the case. More often, we see women presenting with a newly documented pregnancy (frequently unplanned, with half of pregnancies across the country still being unplanned across sociodemographic lines) on an antidepressant with varying amounts of reproductive safety information available for the medicine being taken, and frequently after failed previous trials of other antidepressants. In this scenario, we rarely see the time of a newly documented pregnancy as an opportunity to pursue a new trial of an antidepressant without known efficacy for that patient; we stay the course and hope for sustained euthymia on the drug which has afforded euthymia to date.

Final thoughts

Dos and don’ts are relative in reproductive psychiatry. We tend to apply available data and clinical experience as we guide patients on a case-by-case basis, considering the most currently available rigorous reproductive safety data, as well as the individual patient’s clinical status and her personal wishes.

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