There has been a significant increase in prevalence of prenatal depression among today’s young mothers, according to a unique study of two generations of women in England.
The results suggest that prenatal depression is on average 51% more common among young mothers in the current generation than during their mothers’ generation 25 years ago.
“The findings highlight the need for increased screening and resources to support young pregnant women”
Prenatal depression includes the increased risk of “offspring emotional, behavioral, and cognitive difficulties”. Continuing after birth, it could prove to be a risk to a mothers’ health, parenting and child’s development, noted the researchers.
The Bristol University study compared today’s young mothers with their own mother’s generation, who give birth to their daughters in the 1990s. The study used data from the first pregnancy evaluations of 2,390 mothers from 1991 to 1992 and 180 mothers from 2012 to 2016.
All were between the ages of 19 and 24 at the time of their pregnancy assessment and had the same measure of prenatal depression assessed at the same time during their pregnancy.
The participants were from the same residential area in Avon and the measures of depression used and the timing of the measures were identical.
Of the 2,390 pregnant women in the first generation, 17% had high depressive symptom scores. In contrast, of the 180 in the second generation, 25% had high depressive symptom scores.
“The findings show rates of depression in pregnancy are up by 50% in a generation, which is quite alarming”
The results suggested that prenatal depression was around 51% more common among young mothers in the current generation than during their mothers’ generation 25 years ago, said the study authors in the journal JAMA Network Open.
The researchers noted that one causal factor could be due to the average age of motherhood being higher today than in the 1990s.
Participants may be having children at a younger age than their peers unlike to their mothers’ generation, resulting in an increase in social isolation, they suggested.
The current generation of young women has also experienced a rapid change in technology, internet, and social media use, which can be associated with growing feelings of depression and unwanted changes to social relationships.
“The findings highlight the need for increased screening and resources to support young pregnant women and minimize the potentially far-reaching impact of depression on mothers, their children, and future generations,” said the study authors.
Clare Livingstone, professional policy advisor at the Royal College Midwives, said: “This is a very interesting study. The findings show rates of depression in pregnancy are up by 50% in a generation, which is quite alarming.
“Clearly depression is increasing across the population as a whole, and now we are seeing a corresponding rise in prenatal depression,” she added.
“The study alludes to the impact of chronic stress, sleep deprivation eating habits and financial and employment stresses all contributing to depression in this generation,” said Ms Livingstone.
“The RCM is also concerned that women experiencing social isolation from family and friends or living in areas where traditional communities have broken down maybe more susceptible or at risk of suffering from prenatal depression,” she said.
“Early intervention and support can go a long way in helping to prevent mild and moderate mental health issues”
Perinatal mental illness has been estimated to cost more than £8bn in the UK each year, with prenatal depression being the main contributor.
Routine data and population surveys prove that psychiatric service use and antidepressant prescriptions have increased in recent years, according to the college.
The RCM urged the government to invest more in services for women experiencing mental health issues during pregnancy.
Every trust with maternity services should be expected to have a specialist midwife to support those suffering from the issue, said the college.
“What is also important is timely access to psychological and therapeutic support services, investment in peer support programmes, and the reversal of cuts to core local services,” said Ms Livingstone.
“Early intervention and support can go a long way in helping to prevent mild and moderate mental health issues developing into more serious problems,” she added.