Women’s longitudinal study finds postnatal depression predictor

Mar 8 2013

PhD student Catherine Chojenta

ALSWH gender and health PhD student Catherine Chojenta
Women who have suffered previous bouts of depression and anxiety are at significantly higher risk of developing postnatal depression, a project aligned to the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH) has found.

Catherine Chojenta, a PhD gender and health student who has worked on the study since 2001, examined a cohort of 14,000 women from around Australia, of whom 15 per cent had experienced postnatal depression.

“The most significant predictor for postnatal depression was a history of poor mental health,” Mrs Chojenta said. “Having the predictor now allows us to identify those most at risk and intervene earlier, even before pregnancy … in their teenage years and early adulthood.

“Untreated, postnatal depression can last for years but is usually detected within the first 12 months. There is a lot of assistance available through GPs and midwives if women feel they need it.”

Stressful events during pregnancy and labour, along with subsequent lifestyle changes, were not found to be a significant contributor. For many new mothers the feeling of resentment towards their child, and their situation, came as a surprise.

“Talking to women about the efficacy of treatments we found that many would use medications but they weren’t well managed,” Mrs Chojenta said.

“There is a debate about whether certain medications cause pregnancy complications or harm the newborn child – we didn’t look at that particular aspect. What we’re looking for are alternate methods for treatment because many weren’t happy with the available options.”

As ALSWH participants begin to enter their 40s, the next phase of the ongoing study will evaluate whether older age is a risk factor.

Having won an HMRI travel award last year, Mrs Chojenta will be attending an international Psychology Conference in Stockholm in July, where the impact of perinatal mental health on infancy will be discussed.

She will also visit the Swedish Institute for Social Research to look at comparisons with the Stockholm Birth Cohort.

*Catherine Chojenta is a member of the HMRI Public Health research program. The Australian Longitudinal Study of Women’s Health is conducted by the Priority Research Centre for Gender Health and Ageing. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community