Dr. Katherine L. Wisner, M.D., was awarded a NARSAD Independent Investigator Grant in 1998 for a postpartum major depression study. Today she continues to be a major contributor to this field of study. The latest findings by Dr. Wisner and her team show that 1 in 7 mothers studied experienced postpartum depressive symptoms, and in many cases these co-occurred with anxiety, bipolar disorder and suicidality. With 10,000 study participants, it is the largest depression screening to date of women who had recently given birth.
"In the U.S., the vast majority of postpartum women with depression are not identified or treated even though they are at higher risk for psychiatric disorders," said Dr. Wisner, Northwestern Medicine lead study author. "It's a huge public health problem. A woman's mental health has a profound effect on fetal development as well as her child's physical and emotional development."
As the first study to include a psychiatric assessment for women who screened positive for depression, the findings underscored the critical need for accessible, cost-effective mental health screening both during and after pregnancy. In some cases, follow up with study participants led to life-saving intervention for those who expressed thoughts of self-harm.
"A lot of women do not understand what is happening to them," Wisner said. "They think they're just stressed or they believe it is how having a baby is supposed to feel."
The study, which was published in JAMA Psychiatry on March 13, 2013, was conducted while Dr. Wisner was with the University of Pittsburgh and found that:
- 14% screened positive for depression with onset as follows: 30% prior to pregnancy, 40% after giving birth and 30% while pregnant
- From this 14% positive group, 826 received full psychiatric assessments that showed 19.3% thought of harming themselves (suicide is responsible for about 20% of postpartum deaths); more than 66% of the participants who experienced depression had an anxiety disorder; and 22% of the participants also had bipolar disorder, the majority of whom had not been previously diagnosed by their physician.