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Prevalence of mental health problems in pregnancy revealed in largest ever study

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have today (Friday 13 April) revealed the prevalence of mental health illness in pregnant women, in the largest ever study of its kind.

The study also examines potential links between maternal mental health problems and adverse outcomes for babies, such as premature birth and low birth weight.

This new study looked at data from 142,000 maternities from 2010 to 2015 and are of great international significance due to the large numbers of maternity participants involved.

The research was carried out by Queen’s University together with clinicians working in maternal mental health in collaboration with the Health and Social Care Trust ‘Honest Broker Service’, which aims to enable non-identifiable data to be safely shared to maximise health service benefits.

Almost one fifth of women reported a history of mental disorder, for example schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. Compared to women who did not report a history of mental disorder these pregnancies were more likely to result in premature deliveries and babies born with low birth weight. APGAR scores, a measure of how healthy a baby is in the immediate period after birth were also found to be lower.

Since 2010, women in Northern Ireland have been specifically asked about a history of mental health problems, as part of the Northern Ireland Maternity System (NIMATs) pregnancy screening system carried out by midwives. 

There are currently no specialist perinatal mental health services in four out of the five trusts in the region, and only a limited service in Belfast. In addition, there is no specialist mother and baby unit on the island of Ireland as a whole.

Dr Ciaran Mulholland, Clinical Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry at Queen’s University Belfast states, “Given the lack of large-scale research studies of this nature globally these results are extremely important for the development of perinatal health services everywhere.

“This is further evidence of how Queen’s University is a global leader in research and is committed to advancing knowledge and changing lives.”

Research team member Dr Janine Lynch, who is Consultant Psychiatrist at the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Trust with a special interest in Perinatal Mental Health said: “These findings highlight the urgent need for investment in the provision of specialist maternal mental health care in Northern Ireland.

“By addressing the urgent need for investment in the provision of specialist maternal mental health care, lives and costs will be saved.”

In 2009 – 2013 there were 3.7 deaths per 100,000 maternities in Northern Ireland from mental health-related causes during or up to one year after the end of pregnancy.  101 women died by suicide, representing one in seven of all maternal deaths in this period.

Perinatal depression, anxiety and psychosis also carries a total long-term cost to society of about £8.1 billion for each one-year cohort of births in the UK.


Media enquiries to Sian Devlin, or tel: 028 9097 5292.