Women with perinatal depression have an increased risk of death, new study says. Here's what you need to know.

Perinatal depression is mood disorder that can occur during a woman’s pregnancy or up to a year after giving birth. (Photo: Getty Images)
Perinatal depression is mood disorder that can occur during a woman’s pregnancy or up to a year after giving birth. (Photo: Getty Images)

Pregnancy can stir up a host of emotions ranging from excitement to worry. But for some women, they may find themselves struggling with perinatal depression — a mood disorder that can start during pregnancy or the first 12 months after giving birth. According to new research, experiencing it can increase a woman's chance of death.

Perinatal depression isn’t the same thing as the “baby blues” — a term used to describe “the worry, sadness and tiredness many women experience after having a baby,” notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Baby blues takes place in the first two weeks postpartum and is considered normal and resolves with time," Dr. Karen Horst, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine and staff psychiatrist at Texas Children’s Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. "The key to distinguishing baby blues from postpartum depression is the fluctuation, not just timing. Baby blues symptoms should come and go. By contrast, postpartum depression feels like a setting change in mood state and is more consistent."

What is perinatal depression?

Perinatal depression is a mood disorder that can happen during a woman’s pregnancy (prenatal depression) or up to a year after giving birth (postpartum depression).

Depression is one of the most common serious complications of pregnancy, according to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Women’s Health. Perinatal depression affects up to 20% of women in the U.S., according to a 2020 study in the Cleveland Clinical Journal of Medicine.

According to a new study of childbirth in Sweden published in The BMJ in January 2024, women who experience depression during or after pregnancy have a higher risk of death. This risk — which applies to death by both natural and unnatural causes — peaks in the month after diagnosis, but can remain elevated for as long as 18 years.

“I believe that our study clearly shows that these women have an elevated mortality risk and that this is an extremely important issue," said Qing Shen, affiliated researcher at the Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institutet and one of the principal authors of the cohort study, which compared over 86,500 women diagnosed with perinatal depression with over 865,500 matched controls. The mortality risk was highest for women with postpartum depression, but remained elevated for those diagnosed during pregnancy.

What are the signs to watch out for?

Experts say there are certain symptoms to be aware of when it comes to perinatal depression, which tend to last more than 14 days and affect a woman’s quality of life.

“The symptoms are similar to those seen outside of pregnancy, and may include feeling ‘down’ or depressed, losing interest in things that used to make one happy, changes in weight, appetite or sleep, feeling tired or guilty, increased fidgeting and cognitive deficits,” Dr. Danielle Panelli, an instructor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford Children’s Health, tells Yahoo Life. “Thoughts of suicide, even if passive without a plan, are strong signs of depression.”

In the perinatal period, “a sense of detachment from the infant or lack of bonding may also be a sign,” says Panelli. Horst adds other symptoms include "excessive worry about the baby, crying/tearfulness, flat affect" — meaning a blank expression and decreased speech — and "excessive guilt or expressions of feeling inadequate." A diagnosis of depression is usually made when several of these symptoms occur together and last at least two consecutive weeks.

They can also be easily overlooked. “Some of these symptoms, such as fatigue or sadness related to weight changes, can be perceived as normal by many people, especially in the third trimester and postpartum,” says Panelli, “which is why awareness of the signs of perinatal depression is so important.”

What causes perinatal depression?

Several factors can contribute to perinatal depression. “These include fluctuations in hormone levels, increased fatigue from sleep disruption, feelings of anxiety or stress surrounding pregnancy, childbirth or becoming a parent and situational factors such as changes in employment, moving or alterations in social support systems,” explains Panelli.

She adds: “Often multiple factors play a role in the onset of perinatal depression, and often many of these factors are beyond a person’s control.”

Who is more likely to have it?

People with a history of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder are more vulnerable to developing perinatal depression, according to Panelli.

Other factors associated with perinatal depression include “preexisting diabetes, high blood pressure, family history of mental health conditions or perinatal depression and socioeconomic factors such as being a young parent or single marital status,” she says.

If you experienced perinatal depression in a past pregnancy, are you more likely to have it again?

Yes, says Panelli. People with a history of perinatal depression in a past pregnancy are at “increased risk of recurrence of depression in a subsequent pregnancy,” she says. “This is especially true if the prior depressive episode was triggered by an event that occurred in pregnancy, such as a traumatic birth experience.”

However, Panelli points out that, “with early awareness and screening for this history, management strategies can be implemented during the perinatal period to try and prevent recurrence.”

How is perinatal depression treated?

The good news is that perinatal depression can be treated, typically with medication and/or psychotherapy for moderate to severe symptoms. “The first step towards treatment is acknowledging symptoms,” says Panelli. “Treatment usually depends on severity, but options generally include psychotherapy and antidepressant medications such as serotonin re-uptake inhibitors,” noting that it is “up to the patient and their provider to determine what the specific treatment choice should be.” That includes weighing the risks and benefits of taking an antidepressant with their health care provider.

In either case, Panelli points out that “it can take weeks for people to see improvements in their symptoms.” For example, antidepressants usually take six to eight weeks to work, according to the National Institute of Mental Health — “so close follow-up is important during this period.”

For mild to moderate symptoms, Horst says that mental health support, which comes in many forms, can help. That includes "validation of the mom's feelings, that they are real and not her fault by a medical professional, spouse, extended family member or friend," says Horst, as well as identifying social supports that the mom can use for "reassurance, education [and] a break from childcare in order to sleep or take care of herself."

Therapists who have experience working with patients in the peripartum period can also help, says Horst, noting that Postpartum Support International has a referral network, along with utilizing other professional support options for new moms, including a lactation consultant, postpartum support groups and neighborhood parent groups.

This article was originally published on April 12, 2022 and has been updated.