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Depression is the Strongest Predictor of Substance Use in Pregnancy

A new Canadian study finds that depression is the single largest driver of substance use during pregnancy, highlighting the need for greater support for the mental health of pregnant women.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rate of pregnant women with a depression diagnosis at delivery increased by seven times from 2000 to 2015. And it is well known that drug and alcohol use during pregnancy is linked to poor birth outcomes, but some women continue to use these substances while pregnant.

For the study, a research team from Western University in Ontario and its affiliate, Brescia University College, investigated the potential predictors of cannabis, tobacco and alcohol use among pregnant women. They analyzed the health and geographical data of more than 25,000 pregnant women in Southwestern Ontario.

The research, published in the Journal of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine, is the first Canadian study with a sample size this large to show that depression during pregnancy is the primary risk factor for cannabis, tobacco and alcohol use. In fact, depression was found to be a stronger predictor than education, income or age.

“Pregnant women who were depressed were 2.6 times more likely to use cannabis and twice as likely to smoke cigarettes and use alcohol while pregnant,” said Jamie Seabrook, PhD, an associate professor at Brescia and Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, and scientist at Children’s Health Research Institute, a Lawson program.

“We don’t know when the substance use first began, but we do know that it was continuing during pregnancy and that is a big risk factor for poor maternal and infant health outcomes.”

First author Rachel Brown says that the study really emphasizes the importance of focusing on pregnant women’s mental health. This might include better promotion of mental health strategies, psychotherapy and/or safe and proper mental health medication during pregnancy.

“The research shows that there is an effect later on in life as well with infants who are born preterm or low birth weight. To intervene or advocate for mental health programs for the mom, the idea is that it sets up the health of the infants later on in life,” said Brown, an MSc candidate.

The research team points out that this research is especially important in Canada with the recent legalization of recreational cannabis.

“Let’s help women with their mental health to improve their overall health and in doing so, improve the health of their baby,” said Seabrook.

Source: University of Western Ontario

Depression is the Strongest Predictor of Substance Use in Pregnancy

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2019). Depression is the Strongest Predictor of Substance Use in Pregnancy. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 Aug 2019 (Originally: 23 Aug 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 23 Aug 2019
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