Some Pregnant Women Turn To Substance Use When Depression Is Untreated

By Kelly Burch 04/22/19

A new study investigated why pregnant women had a lower treatment rate of depression than non-pregnant women. 

pregnant woman experiencing depression

A large percentage of pregnant women who are experiencing symptoms of depression do not get help, and sometimes turn to substance use to self-medicate, risking harms to themselves and their fetus. 

A study published in Psychiatric Services found that just 49% of pregnant women who had experienced a major depressive episode were treated. This is compared with 57% of non-pregnant women who had a major depressive episode. 

Researchers were surprised to find that pregnant women had a lower treatment rate, since they are visiting healthcare providers more often than non-pregnant women, and therefore—in theory—should have more access to screening and treatment. 

“What we would expect is that pregnant women are visiting the ob-gyn more and they should have more opportunities to see a psychologist or psychiatrist,” study author Maria X. Sanmartin told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “But that is not what we found.”

Instead, researchers saw that all women had low treatment rates, but pregnant women fared especially poorly. 

“In general, treatment rates are very, very low,” Sanmartin said. 

The lack of treatment could lead women—including pregnant women—to self-medicate. The study found that in the month before the study, 6% of pregnant women used opioids, 17% used marijuana, and 23% used alcohol. The real rates may be even higher, since pregnant women may underreport their substance use for fear of facing criticism or punishment. 

For pregnant women who did seek help, medication was the most common form of treatment. While this is a good start, people with depression also need access to talk therapy to see optimal results, Sanmartin said. 

“The easiest way to cope with these things is to just give medication, but medication alone might not be what would help the patient,” she said. Earlier this year, a government task force recommended that all pregnant women be screened for depression. Although this is a massive initiative, proponents say that the effort is well worth it. 

“The benefits of increased maternal and infant wellness and decreased stigma to seek mental health assistance would likely lead to less of a toll on our healthcare system than when mental health concerns are unaddressed,” American Counseling Association president Simone Lambert said.  

Jeff Temple, a University of Texas psychologist in the department of obstetrics and gynecology, told Time that the measure is important, but will require significant mental health resources. 

“I am very happy to see anything related to prevention, whether it’s mental health generally or perinatal depression specifically. If we can prevent problems from occurring, not only do we do a great service to humans, but [the health care system] saves a great deal of money,” he said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.