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The Dangers of Perinatal Depression

New research finds depression before or after pregnancy increases suicide risk.

Key points

  • Two new studies find perinatal depression significantly increases the risk of suicide later in life.
  • The highest risk occurs in the year after diagnosis, but increased risks remain for up to 18 years.
  • Research found a diagnosis of perinatal depression presents more risks than family-related factors.
grooveriderz/Adobe Stock
grooveriderz/Adobe Stock

Experiencing depression during pregnancy or the first year after a child is born significantly increases a woman’s risk of attempting suicide or dying by suicide, according to two new large studies published this month.

Approximately 1 in 7 women become depressed during pregnancy or within a year of giving birth (called perinatal depression), according to the National Institutes of Health. Approximately 1.7 million adults in the U.S. attempt suicide each year, and adult females reported a suicide attempt 1.33 times as often as males.

In the first study, published in JAMA Network Open, Swedish researchers analyzed more than 950,000 medical records of pregnant women. They found that more than 86,000 study participants experienced perinatal depression, while 865,000 study participants were unaffected.

The women who experienced depression before or after giving birth were three times more likely to attempt or die by suicide compared to those who did not. The risk of suicide was the highest in the year after diagnosis, but remained twice as high for the depressed mothers compared to the unaffected mothers for up to 18 years after the initial diagnosis.

The second study, published in the British Medical Journal, analyzed the same data set. In this study, researchers identified and compared the medical records of 270,000 biological sisters who gave birth during a similar time frame as the original study participants. Comparing sisters allowed researchers to assess whether family factors, such as genetics and childhood environment, could have played a role.

They found the risk of suicidal behavior was three times higher for women with perinatal depression compared to biological sisters who did not receive the same diagnosis. This suggests that depression is a more significant risk factor than family influences.

The studies also revealed other important dynamics. For one, women who developed depression in the year after giving birth were at a higher risk of attempting suicide compared to those who developed depression during pregnancy. Women who experienced depression surrounding pregnancy and childbirth were more likely to have lower education levels and incomes, live alone, and have previous psychiatric disorders or suicidal behavior.

But regardless of whether women had other mental health problems, perinatal depression increased the risk of suicidal behavior and death. This suggests that perinatal depression is different and more severe than other mental health disorders, and highlights the importance of diagnosing and treating pre- and postpartum depression in pregnant women and new mothers, the researchers write.

The take-home message: Perinatal depression presents a serious health risk for women, even years after they’ve given birth.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For immediate help in the U.S., 24/7, call 988 or go to Outside of the U.S., visit the International Resources page for suicide hotlines in your country. To find a therapist near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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