A pregnant woman cradles her stomach.
A VCU researcher is the primary investigator on a project studying an app-based approach to preventing depressive symptoms in pregnant women. (Getty Images)

A VCU researcher is studying an app that provides wellness tools during and after pregnancy

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Nearly 20% of women in the United States experience clinically significant depressive symptoms during pregnancy or the postpartum period. Virginia Commonwealth University researcher Patricia Kinser, Ph.D., is studying a mobile app that could benefit these women by helping prevent the development of symptoms or helping them cope with their current symptoms.

“At present, no systematic, app-based, self-management approaches designed to prevent or treat perinatal depressive symptoms exist in the U.S.,” said Kinser, an associate professor in the VCU School of Nursing and co-director of perinatal mental health research at the VCU Institute for Women’s Health

Patricia Kinser.
Patricia Kinser, Ph.D.

Kinser was awarded almost $2.3 million from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health earlier this year for a five-year study focusing on an app-based self-management program — called Mamma Mia — for preventing and reducing perinatal depressive symptoms. 

Mamma Mia is a self-guided program that women will begin early in their pregnancy and complete by six months postpartum. The app has a wide variety of content, ranging from information about mindfulness and gratitude practices to breastfeeding and reading infant cues. Researchers at VCU and Arizona State University began recruiting participants for the study earlier this month. 

“Even though we hope it will help with preventing depression, it’s not just about depression. It’s supportive through postpartum,” Kinser said.

Mamma Mia was first created by researchers in Norway.

“This is a unique collaboration that started organically. With our Norwegian colleagues, we established the feasibility and efficacy of Mamma Mia for perinatal depressive symptoms in 1,342 women in Norway, and we piloted a demonstration version in the U.S.,” said Kinser, lead principal investigator for the multisite U.S. study. “The study we are doing now builds upon our findings by adapting the intervention for a diverse U.S. audience.”

Kinser is also working with German collaborators. “We want to test this in multiple countries and languages,” she said. “This is something we can make more widely available across the globe if things go well.”

Kinser’s research team is actively recruiting women nationwide for the U.S. randomized controlled trial of the app. Interested women can learn more at www.MammaMiaStudy.org.

Mamma Mia Study

“Obviously, this app was not originally designed with the pandemic in mind,” Kinser said. “But because it is an online app-based system, it can provide resources to pregnant and postpartum women despite the fact that they have to be socially distancing.”

Enrolled pregnant women will be randomly assigned to one of three groups: Mamma Mia, where they will go through 44 modules throughout their pregnancy and the first six months postpartum; Mamma Mia Plus, where they will receive brief guided support from a registered nurse in addition to the modules or the usual prenatal/postpartum care; and a control group. 

“We intend to recruit almost 2,000 women nationwide,” Kinser said. “If proven effective, Mamma Mia may be a low-cost, sustainable and translatable option for the prevention of and intervention in perinatal depressive symptoms.” 

Sara Moyer, a registered nurse, is the project coordinator in charge of recruiting participants and working with those in the Mamma Mia Plus group. The recruitment process started Oct. 15 and will continue through the five years of the study, or until the goal of 2,000 participants is reached.

In the first 24 hours, several women had already expressed interest in participating. 

“We have more than 20 participants enrolled already. We’ve had an impressive amount of interest, which speaks to the importance of the work we are doing,” Moyer said.

The team is reaching out to women through social media platforms. “Hopefully, women who enroll will share it with their friends,” Moyer said. “Part of our team is reaching out to several national partners, such as moms’ groups on social media.”

If it is successful, the app can help enhance women’s confidence during the perinatal period. 

“Hopefully, it will improve maternal and child outcomes,” Kinser said.