Rise in symptoms of depression and anxiety during pregnancy

Around a quarter of women who became pregnant under the age of 24 have high depressive symptoms, according to the research (Katie Collins/PA) Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The number of young women who exhibit signs of anxiety and depression during pregnancy has risen by half (51%) within a generation, according to a new study.

The latest figures show a quarter (25%) of women who became pregnant under the age of 24 have high depressive symptoms compared to 17% who did in the 1990s, according to research published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Researchers at the University of Bristol analysed data from two generations of women who took part in Bristol’s Children of the 90s longitudinal study, examining responses to questions completed by the women during pregnancy to compare levels of depressive symptoms more than 20 years apart.

Looking at the responses of 2,390 of the original women who were recruited to the study in the early 1990s and then 180 of their daughter’s generation who became pregnant by the age of 24, researchers found that having high depressive symptoms was 51% more common in the current generation.

If their mother was depressed in pregnancy, daughters were also more than three times as likely to be depressed in their pregnancy.

It is the first time that scientists have been able to compare mental health symptoms in pregnancy across generations, with researchers saying it marks the beginnings of a new wave of health and social policy research that is planned using data from three generations.

Dr Rebecca Pearson, a lecturer in psychiatric epidemiology at the university’s medical school, said: “While there is a perception that mental health is rising, this may be due to greater awareness and less stigma. These new data give a more accurate picture of what our current population of young pregnant women are facing.

“Interestingly, however, the research shows that depression in today’s young women may be driven by rises in feeling overwhelmed and stressed rather than feelings of being down and flat.

“Given that depression in pregnancy has substantial impact to both mother and child this is of key importance for health services.

“Our next steps will use this resource to look at the consequences of maternal depression on the second generation from the Children of the 90s once they are born.

“Currently we have parents and their babies set up with head camera technology at home to more closely and realistically examine interactions between parents and babies and how these are influenced by mental health.”

Clare Dolman, vice chairwoman of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, said: “This is an important piece of research from the University of Bristol on depression in pregnancy showing that rates of depression have risen within a generation.

“It is vital now to go further and look at the possible causes of this increase to help devise interventions to break the inter-generational cycle.”

Dr Trudi Seneviratne, chairwoman of the Perinatal Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “This new data offers a valuable insight into changing generational patterns of mental health and it’s reporting.

“Whilst the study finds an increase in signs of anxiety and depression, it stops short of indicating growth in the rate of young mothers experiencing diagnosed mental illness.

“Levels of depression and anxiety in young women is rising – up to 26% amongst 16-24-year-olds compared to 22% in 2010.

“It’s no surprise, then, to see this translated into the experience of young mothers. It is crucial that there are adequate mental health services, including perinatal psychiatrists, to meet the demands of pregnant or recent mothers experiencing mental health problems.”