Pregnant and depressed? It’s not unexpected
A new research project aims to show the benefits of treating depression in pregnant women
Hormonal changes during pregnancy can contribute to the development of depression. Photograph: Thinkstock
Prof Veronica O’Keane of Tallaght Hospital. Photograph: Derek Speirs
It was once thought that pregnancy hormones helped to protect against depression, with many women reporting a feeling of emotional wellbeing. But it is now known that the hormonal changes in pregnancy can actually contribute to the development of depression.
About one in 10 women suffer from the illness during pregnancy. With evidence showing that depression in the mother during pregnancy can have long-term consequences for the health of her offspring, it is vital that these woman are identified and treated, says Prof Veronica O’Keane, a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin’s department of psychiatry and a consultant psychiatrist at Tallaght hospital.
“Depression is there in 10 per cent of women during pregnancy, but it is often ignored because of the fear of giving antidepressants to pregnant women,” she says.
“However, depression itself is very damaging to women and this biological stress is being passed on to the baby so the pros and cons of treating the woman for depression must be seriously considered.”
O’Keane is heading up a major new Irish research project that she hopes will show that when women are treated for their depression during pregnancy, their baby’s stress systems will normalise within the first year of birth.
Dr Carmine Pariante, head of perinatal psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, says depression during pregnancy can have specific long-term consequences for the baby that are separate from the effects of post-natal depression.
He spoke about his research in this area at a recent neuroscience meeting at University College Cork.
“There is something about the mother being depressed when the baby is in utero that makes the baby more vulnerable to developing depression as a young adult,” he says. “Our research has shown that babies born to mothers who were depressed in pregnancy tend to be more irritable and reactive to stress.
“As children, they are more likely to be exposed to life stressors like bullying or maltreatment by others and, as adolescents and young adults, they are more likely to become depressed than babies born to mothers who were not depressed in pregnancy.”
Pariante highlights the need for a strategy to treat depression in pregnancy, arguing that by treating the depression, not only will the woman feel better, but there is the potential to prevent the child from developing depression in the future.
O’Keane started researching the subject during her time at King’s College London. The new project, which is funded by the Health Research Board and involves TCD, the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street, the Coombe and Crumlin children’s hospital, is due to begin in November.
The researchers will follow 200 women – 100 of whom will be clinically depressed – through their pregnancies and will track the levels of cortisol (the main stress hormone in the body) of mother and baby for the first year of the baby’s life.