One in eight pregnant women affected by depression

24 August 2015

One in eight New Zealand women suffer from depression symptoms while pregnant, with Pacific and Asian women twice as likely to be affected, reveals new research from Growing Up in New Zealand.

The risk is three times higher for women who were diagnosed with anxiety before and during pregnancy, regardless of their ethnicity.  Stress was also found to be an important factor: The more stressed women feel during pregnancy the more likely they are to experience depression symptoms.

Although less well known than postnatal depression, antenatal depression can have significant effects on the health of both the mother and her unborn child. Mothers who suffer from depression during pregnancy can struggle with taking care of their own health and wellbeing, which in turn can slow the foetus’ growth, increase the risk of a premature birth and delay the child’s motor and emotional development.

“Women affected by antenatal depression are more likely to smoke and eat poorly, resulting in too much or not enough weight gain which can affect the baby’s development,” says Associate Professor Karen Waldie from the University of Auckland who acts as Psychosocial and Cognitive Expert Advisor to the Growing Up in New Zealand study.

“These women are also less likely to make use of maternity services or breastfeed, and have a higher risk of experiencing depression after their child is born.”

The condition is difficult to diagnose and New Zealand currently has no nationwide screening programme to identify women who might be affected.

“Symptoms such as sleep disruption, low energy or a change in appetite are often misinterpreted as a normal aspect of pregnancy, which makes it more difficult to recognise a mother with antenatal depression,” explains Dr Waldie.

“Our research aims to identify maternal characteristics associated with the condition to increase the capacity for healthcare providers to identify and treat pregnant women with depression during pregnancy.”

To achieve this, the researchers analysed interviews with 5664 pregnant women enrolled in the Growing Up in New Zealand study, conducted during the last months of pregnancy. The group represents the ethnic and socio-demographic diversity of all mothers having children in New Zealand today. Antenatal depression symptoms were measured using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS), a screening tool which consists of ten self-report items focused on the cognitive and emotional effects of depression.

The researchers found that 11.9 percent of the women had EPDS scores that indicated antenatal depression.  Women from non-European ethnicities, specifically Pacific Island, Asian and other non-European women, were twice as likely to be affected, even when socioeconomic factors were taken into account.

Women diagnosed with anxiety before and during pregnancy had a three times higher risk of experiencing the condition. The more stressed a woman felt during pregnancy, the higher her risk of having significant depression symptoms.

Antenatal depression was more common in women who were in a relationship but not living with their partner. This suggests that being pregnant and having the prospect of raising a baby without the support of a partner has a negative effect on maternal mental health.

Symptoms of depression were also more likely to be reported by women who had an unplanned pregnancy, those who lived in an unstable family setup and those who felt less integrated into their neighbourhood.

“We showed that depression during pregnancy is a widespread burden in New Zealand, especially for our Pacific and Asian communities,” says Dr Waldie.

“Our findings highlight the need for doctors and midwives to improve recognition and delivery of treatment for depression and to promote good mental health in pregnancy. The high number of cases might even justify further consideration of the benefits of a nationwide screening programme for the condition."

"We hope that further research into this issue will allow us to develop strategies to keep all our pregnant mothers and their babies safe and provide support early on in their pregnancy."

A pregnant woman leaning on a fence during autumn.

For more information and interviews with our researchers please contact:

Sabine Kruekel
Growing Up in New Zealand
Communications and Marketing Manager
Phone: 09 923 9690
Mobile: 027 886 0722

The results in brief

  • 11.9 percent of pregnant New Zealand women showed signs of antenatal depression (EPDS score >12).
  • Pacific and Asian women were twice as likely to experience antenatal depression compared to New Zealand European women.
  • Women who felt more stressed during pregnancy, and experienced anxiety before and during pregnancy were more likely to be affected by antenatal depression.
  • The likelihood of antenatal depression was also higher for women who were in a relationship but not living with their partner, women who had an unplanned pregnancy, those who lived in an unstable family setup and those who felt less integrated into their neighbourhood.