In January, a government-appointed panel recommended that all pregnant women and new mothers be screened for depression. Public health advocates rejoiced, as did untold numbers of women who had not known that maternal mental illness even existed before it hit them like a freight train.

But the panel did not mention one possible consequence of a diagnosis: Life and disability insurance providers have sometimes penalized women with these mental illnesses by charging them more money, excluding mental illness from coverage or declining to cover them at all. And it’s perfectly legal.

Many insurance companies lump these women with the larger pool of people in whom more general depression has been diagnosed. That can leave those with mild to moderate cases that came and went facing higher rates, even if they may not be at higher risk of suicide or being unable to work. But insurers base decisions on actuarial data, and the historical underdiagnosis of mild to moderate postpartum depression means there is not much long-term data for insurance companies to use.

Not every woman will pay higher rates, and the fear of doing so is not a good reason to avoid screening or necessary treatment. Women who are aware of the potential insurance problems can theoretically circumvent them in the short term. Any woman who has never given birth but hopes to get pregnant soon should buy as much life and disability insurance as she thinks she will need before she conceives.

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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President

Jeffrey R. Ungvary