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Prior mental health problems predict perinatal depression

by on 2015/06/17

A recent study that examined mental health in women over a 22 year period has suggested that prior mental health problems predict the development of depression during pregnancy or within 6 months of birth (perinatal period). The study suggests that a history of depression in adolesence and/or early adulthood puts women at a higher risk of developing depression in the perinatal period. The study attracted a broad range of media interest – so how did the media report on this finding?

What did the researchers do?

The study was carried out in Melbourne, Australia, led by Professor George Patton of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. The researchers used data from the Victorian Adolescent Health Cohort Study in which participants were assessed for health outcomes, including depressive symptoms, across 9 timepoints from age 14 to 29. During the 9th testing timepoint, participants were enrolled into a second study known as the Victorian Intergenerational Health Cohort Study. Within this study female participants were contacted every 6 months, from 29 to 35 years, to identify any pregnancies. Depression was then assessed 32 weeks into pregnancy, and at 8 weeks and 12 months post pregnancy.    The authors reported a range of figures in the paper depending on the testing phase examined. One of the key findings was that perinatal depressive symptoms (depression observed during pregnancy or within 6 months of birth) were reported at one or more assessment points from 109 pregnancies and a pre-conception history of mental health problems was reported in 93 (85%) of these pregnancies. The authors interpreted their findings as showing that perinatal depressive symptoms are mostly preceded by mental health problems that begin before pregnancy, either in adolescence or young adulthood and that women with a history of persisting common mental health problems before pregnancy are a clearly identifiable group at high risk of perinatal depression.

How were the findings reported?

Most of the reporting focused on the key implication of the findings, emphasised by the research team as identifying a group of women who are at high risk of developing perinatal depression. For example, The Conversation ran with the headline ‘Postnatal depression is a continuation of existing mental health problems’. Several media outlets (examples here and here) had the same type of focus but chose to use the terms ‘baby blues’ over depression as described within the study. Despite the importance of the findings, most of the media coverage was reported nationally (i.e. within Australian media outlets). The Daily Mail chose to run with a headline which focused on the risk factor of developing perinatal depression stating that ‘women who suffer depression or anxiety in their teens have a ONE IN THREE chance of having baby blues‘. The use of bold writing acts to sensationalise the reporting and could hardly be considered sensitive. Some reporting focused on the implication that perinatal depression is ‘not caused by hormones’ – the inclusion of this in a headline could be considered misrepresentative, given the study did not directly assess hormonal factors.

The bottom line

In Research the Headlines posts, we have repeatedly emphasised the importance of accuracy and using sensitive language when describing mental health issues. In this case, the media generally did well to highlight the important implication of this study, that there is a clearly identifiable group of women who are at high risk of developing depression during pregnancy and/or post birth. Some of the headlines could have been more accurate, which is extremely important in the case of such a sensitive topic. Some of the reporting could have also been more sensitive in terminology used, such as referring to depression as depression!

Patton, G. C. et al. (2015). Prediction of perinatal depression from adolescence and before conception (VIHCS): 20-year prospective cohort study. The Lancet. DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(14)62248-0

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