New Mothers Much More Susceptible to Mental Illness
> 12/8/2006 3:07:47 PM

Beyond the well-publicized post-partum depression phenomenon, recent mothers are exponentially more likely than others to suffer from bouts of severe mental illness. A new study, performed in Denmark and published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, worked from rates of hospitalization among new parents over a span of more than thirty years. From 1973 to 2005, more than one million Danish citizens became parents for the first time, and nearly two thousand of these individuals, none of whom had been previously diagnosed for mental illness, were admitted to hospitals for psychiatric treatment within a year of the birth.

Though post-partum depression has been documented throughout history and gained national attention due to several recent, high-profile cases, it is still largely dismissed as an anomoly or a minor side-effect of pregnancy. Milder forms of "baby blues" do follow 40-85% of deliveries, but the new study reveals that degrees of the disorder vary wildly and that depression is only one of an assortment of serious conditions much more likely to affect women who've recently given birth. One in one thousand first-time mothers enter the hospital within a year, and this seems like a relatively small number, but it is significantly higher than comparable numbers for the general population, and the first three months after birth see a sevenfold increase in psychiatric visits. Fathers are affected to a much lesser degree (.37 in 1000), which lends credence to the theory that the changes in female hormonal makeup that come with pregnancy and nursing are at least partially to blame for instances of depression and psychosis. Estrogen levels fall precipitously after delivery, and some evidence points to estrogen as an important regulator of mood and memory.

The main benefit of this study should be to make medical professionals aware of the very real threat of post-partum mental illness and its often devastating effects. Some will undoubtedly still use the "suck it up and be strong" argument against focusing too keenly on the subject, but for millions of women around the world, "baby blues" are much more than that. Far from a sign of weakness or unfit motherhood, these conditions are unintentional chemical realities that, left untouched, can have serious repercussions not only for first-time parents but, more importantly, for the quality of life enjoyed by their children.

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