WASHINGTON (February 21, 2024) – A research team led by Children’s National Hospital painted a sobering picture, collecting years of data showing that maternal mental illness is an underappreciated cause of death among new mothers. In the latest edition of they call for urgent action to address this public health crisis JAMA Psychiatry.

The journal’s special announcement draws from dozens of peer-reviewed studies and health policy sources and comes as maternal mortality in the United States is up to three times higher than in other high-income countries.

“The contribution of mental illness to the maternal morbidity and mortality crisis that we have in America is not widely recognized,” he said Katherine L. Wisner, MD, deputy chief of the Division of Perinatal Mental Health and member of the Center for Prenatal, Neonatal and Maternal Health Research at Children’s National. “We must bring this to the attention of the public and policymakers to demand action to address the mental health crisis that is contributing to the demise of mothers in America.”

The evidence review outlined the risks faced by new mothers: More than 80% of maternal deaths in the United States are preventable, particularly nearly one in four maternal deaths are due to mental health disorders. Overdose and other maternal mental illnesses kill more than twice as many women as postpartum hemorrhage, the second leading cause of maternal death. Non-Hispanic black mothers have a striking 2.6 times higher mortality rate than non-Hispanic white mothers.

Still, the research team found that recent national efforts to combat maternal mortality have failed to address maternal mental health as “the public health crisis that it represents.” Even the methods used to measure maternal health statistics are inconsistent, complicating efforts to shape health policy.

Examining 30 recent studies and an additional 15 historical references, the team—including Caitlin Murphy, MPA, PNP, a research scientist at George Washington University’s Milken School of Public Health, and Megan Thomas, MD, FACOG, an obstetrician at the U of Kansas School of Medicine – has found ample data supporting the need to prioritize maternal mental health. Some examples:

  • Several studies show that women are at higher risk of new and recurrent psychiatric disorders in the perinatal period: 14.5% of pregnant mothers experience a new episode of depression and another 14.5% develop an episode three months after birth.

  • Nationwide, more than 400 maternity centers closed between 2006 and 2020, creating “maternity care deserts” that left nearly 6 million women with limited or no access to maternity care.

  • According to reports from three dozen maternal morbidity and mortality review committees, mental illnesses such as suicide or opioid overdose account for nearly 23% of American maternal deaths during pregnancy. This is followed by bleeding (13.7%), heart disease (12.8%) and infection (9.2%).

Despite these sobering statistics, Dr. Wisner says that only 20 percent of women are screened for depression after giving birth. “Given that many mothers are currently in contact with healthcare professionals, it is critical that all mothers receive screening and treatment,” she said. “Mental health is fundamental to the health – of the mother, the child and the entire family.”

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