Background: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person peripartum support groups were a staple for promoting emotional wellness. Participation in virtual support groups is often suggested in the literature as a possible avenue for improving peripartum mental health during the pandemic, yet data to support this assumption has been absent. This study examined associations between participation in virtual support groups for peripartum women and mental health outcomes at follow-up ~8 months later.
Methods: This cross-sectional online survey study assessed 383 women from the Perinatal Experiences and COVID-19 Effects (PEACE) study. Initial participants (T1) were re-contacted (T2) and self-reported mental health symptoms of depression (CES-D), anxiety (GAD-7), and COVID-related grief were assessed at both time points. Participants reported involvement in virtual support groups and their perception of effectiveness of social media in addressing feelings of loneliness.
Results: The majority (62%) of respondents participated in a virtual support group, 99% of whom used informal social media-based groups (e.g. Facebook groups). At initial evaluation, virtual group participants reported higher levels of depressive symptoms (p = 0.008) and COVID grief (p =0.004), but not higher levels of anxiety. Across the cohort, self-reported depressive, anxiety, and grief symptoms did not change significantly at follow-up in paired analysis, and virtual group participants did not demonstrate more improvement in mental health symptoms. Those in social media-based virtual support groups were more engaged in social media (p<0.001) but not more likely to report that social media was addressing their feelings of loneliness.
Conclusions: Mental health symptomatology was highly persistent at follow-up. While the majority of peripartum women engaged in social media based support groups during the pandemic, participation did not seem to improve mental health outcomes and most women found social media engagement minimally effective at addressing loneliness. Recommending virtual support groups may not be evidence-based, just convenient.