History Repeats Postpartum

While the baby blues is not an uncommon phenomenon, successful suicide attempts are rare. And while that may be a good thing, even an unsuccessful suicide attempt can have long lasting adverse effects on infant and family. Now, researchers have looked at two groups of moms and found that having a history of mental illness or substance abuse are strong predictors for postpartum suicide attempts.

Researchers looked at hospitalization and birth records from the state of Washington for the years 1992-2001 and discovered 335 women had been hospitalized for attempted suicide. A further 1420 postpartum women who had never been hospitalized for attempted suicide were used as a control group.

After researchers adjusted for variables that might affect suicide attempt statistics such as fetal or infant death, it was revealed that women with a previous hospitalization for a psychiatric disorder had a more than 27% increase in suicide attempts than women with no such prior history. Those women who had a history of substance abuse were found to be six times as likely to attempt suicide and the group of women who had both risk factors increased their risk by 11 times.

Prenatal Screening

Study co-author Katherine A. Comtois, PhD, lead investigator from the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center and the University of Washington School of Medicine commented, "One implication of this study is that screening for past history of psychiatric and substance use diagnoses as part of routine prenatal care may be a means of identifying women at high risk of postpartum suicide attempt, although a recent review of prenatal screening for depression cited insufficient evidence to recommend screening as a way to improve outcomes."

In spite of the fact that doctors aren't convinced that prenatal screenings for pregnant women's psychiatric histories prevent attempted suicide, there has been a recent recommendation from The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to screen pregnant women for psychosocial risk factors, such as depression, during routine prenatal care.

Devastating Impact

The published report on the Washington study urges better follow-up care for postpartum women with current or past psychiatric disorders or substance abuse. The authors of the study suggest that future studies might evaluate the efficacy of such prenatal screening as a way to decrease the number of postpartum suicide attempts. If such screening should prove successful, it may lead to the prevention of the devastating impact on the family that is associated with attempted postpartum suicide.

This study was made possible through a grant from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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