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Childbirth Linked to Mental Illness in New Moms

Thursday, Dec. 7, 2006
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Danish researchers find that first-time mothers—but not first-time fathers—are at an increased risk for mental disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. The risk is greatest in the first three months following childbirth, according to a study published in this week’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Postpartum depression affects between 10% and 15% of mothers and their families. Fortunately, severe psychoses are less common, affecting first-time moms in about one per 1,000 singleton births.

The JAMA study, which was based on data from 2,357,942 people in the Danish health and civil service registers, showed that the risk of postpartum mental illness remained statistically significant for up to three months after giving birth, regardless of the mother’s age.

More specifically, the study looked at 630,373 first-time mothers and 547,431 first-time fathers from 1973 to 2005. During that time, 1,171 women and 658 men developed mental disorders. The 10 to 19 days following childbirth were critical for new mothers and associated with the highest risk—7.3 times higher than women who had given birth previously.

Men and women (under about 25 years-old) who did not become parents during this time also had a lower incidence of hospital admission with a mental disorder.

What it Means: The study suggests that women may undergo physiological changes that increase their susceptibility to mental illness. The researchers call their results regarding risk of postpartum mental disorders an “underestimate” with the consideration that 40% to 50% of postnatal depression goes undetected. A related JAMA editorial stresses the importance of postpartum depression as a major public health problem.

At least one previous study has shown that some fathers, too, suffer from depression eight weeks after their child is born, but the current JAMA study argues against any association between fatherhood and the onset of mental disorders.
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