DMSC professor receives funding for postpartum mental health research

A UBC professor has received two grants to support her cutting-edge work on women’s reproductive mental health.

nfDr. Nichole Fairbrother, an Assistant Professor in UBC’s Department of Psychiatry and an affiliate with UVic’s Division of Medical Sciences, has received funding from Island Health to continue her research on first-time mothers’ thoughts of infant-related harm and postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“We are immensely grateful to Island Health and their support of our research,” said Dr. Fairbrother. “Infant-harm thoughts, which can lead to postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder, can be incredibly distressing and impairing for the women who experience them. Our research is designed to improve the lives of these suffering mothers.”

In her first project, which originally received funding, in 2012, by the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), Dr. Fairbrother is examining the relationship between new mothers’ thoughts of infant-related harm and actual parenting behaviors.

Right now, evidence suggests that thoughts of infant harm affect up to 50% of new mothers – even those who genuinely care about their children and who have no history of violence or instability. To be sure, there are instances of infanticide and gross neglect of children, but the vast majority of those who experience these troubling, unwanted thoughts – which, among vulnerable women, can develop into a condition called postpartum OCD, or ppOCD – are not at risk of such violence. Even so, some of these mothers, when they reported their symptoms, have been treated as if they posed a threat: they were intensely monitored, for example, and in some cases had their children taken away, resulting in potentially serious consequences for their mental health and the relationship with their newborns.

Unfortunately, the relationship between postpartum harming thoughts and harming behaviors is relatively unstudied, said Dr. Fairbrother, so right now there’s no accurate way to determine which women are, and are not, at risk for infant harm. Given the stakes, it’s critical to study this relationship in order to better guide women who experience these upsetting thoughts, their healthcare providers, and the child-protection system.

In her second research project, Dr. Fairbrother is studying the effectiveness of online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for women suffering from postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (ppOCD). Right now, in-person counselling is available, but many women aren’t able to access it. Why? First, there are simply not enough resources available to treat the potentially huge number of women suffering from ppOCD. Second, these counselling services can be expensive – prohibitively so for some.

Enter web-based CBT. Research shows that online treatment is effective for many different conditions, but it’s never been offered to those suffering from ppOCD specifically. Using the funding from Island Health, Dr. Fairbrother plans to submit a more competitive grant application to the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), which will allow her to pilot, and study the effectiveness of, online CBT counselling for women suffering from these unwanted and intrusive thoughts.

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Dr. Fairbrother, alongside her professorship with UBC’s Department of Psychiatry and her affiliation with UVic’s Division of Medical Sciences, also holds several other roles: she is a member of the UBC Island Medical Program; an associate member of the UBC School of Population and Public Health; an adjunct member of the UVic’s Department of Psychology; and a member of the Women's Health Research Institute at BC Women's Hospital. Learn more about Dr. Fairbrother’s research interests here.