A woman’s lifetime history of drug use can help predict whether she will suffer from postpartum stress and anxiety, according to a new study by researchers at North Carolina (NC) State University and the University of British Columbia. The findings could help health-care providers identify pregnant women at greatest risk for mental health problems after delivery.
“There’s been a lot of attention recently on the need to incorporate mental health screening into prenatal care, and it has largely focused on identifying women who are at risk of postpartum depression,” said Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at NC State.
“Our study has two important findings that are relevant to that discussion,” said Desmarais. “First, we found that women are at risk of significant postpartum mental health problems other than depression — stress and anxiety are serious issues that merit attention.”
“Second, by incorporating questions about a woman’s history of drug use, we can help health-care providers more accurately identify women who are at risk of postpartum stress and anxiety — and take steps to provide the necessary care.”
The research was not designed to focus specifically on drug use, but was instead aimed at answering the broader question of whether women’s use of alcohol and drugs at any point in their lives made them more susceptible to postpartum mental health problems.
“Historically, a lot of research focused on women’s substance use during pregnancy. We thought that may not be a reliable way of capturing women’s substance use, because women are likely less willing to admit to substance use during pregnancy — they’re concerned about losing parental custody, dealing with social stigma, or biasing their treatment and care,” said Desmarais.
“What’s more, pregnancy is not when women begin using drugs or alcohol; that’s something that carries over from a woman’s behavior before pregnancy.”
For the study, the researchers used data from interviews with 100 women in British Columbia who had given birth in the previous three months. The participants were largely from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and were not considered at high risk of postpartum mental health problems. They were recruited to join a broad health and wellness study, which was not specifically focused on substance use.
In those interviews, women were asked about their history of alcohol use and their history of drug abuse.
“The key finding is that asking about lifetime drug use really helped us predict whether a woman would experience postpartum mental health problems,” said Desmarais. “The best predictor of postpartum mental health problems is still whether a woman has a history of mental health problems. But when you include a history of drug use, the likelihood increases significantly.”
Specifically, a history of previous drug use was linked to greater levels of stress and anxiety after childbirth. Drug use was not associated with postpartum depression, and prior alcohol use was not linked to any postpartum mental health problems.
Source: North Carolina State University