pregnancy depressionA new study finds that death by suicide and homicide are more common than “traditional” causes of maternal mortality in the U.S., such as infection or hemorrhage.  So why is it that those traditional causes of maternal death are so much more likely to be discussed and reported?

By analyzing records from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), researchers at Georgia Health Sciences University found a total of 94 pregnancy-associated suicides — meaning women who killed themselves either during pregnancy or in the first year after birth — between 2003 and 2007.  This would work out to a rate of 2 suicides per every 100,000 births.  We don’t know whether any of these women were diagnosed with antenatal or postpartum depression, but we can guess it’s likely they were not, given the overall lack of awareness and screening for these illnesses.

The researchers also say there may be more maternal suicides of which we are unaware, because, as Science Daily reports, those numbers could be underreported, “… because the pregnancy or postpartum status was marked ‘unknown’ in the majority of female deaths in the CDC database.”

In an interview with Christie Palladino, reports the lead researcher says it was, “… her early experience as an obstetrician-gynecologist who felt ill-prepared to treat depression in pregnant women that got her interested in the topic. A 2003 report in The British Journal of Psychiatry identifying suicide as the leading cause of maternal death in Great Britain sealed the deal.”

According to the World Health Organization, the maternal death rate in the United States as of 2005 was 11 per every 100,000.  I’ve seen recent reports states the rate is even higher, around 17 per every 100,000.  The leading causes of maternal death are cited as hemorrhage and infection, followed by other complications like pulmonary embolism and heart problems.  But I can’t find suicide mentioned in the WHO maternal death materials, nor in the CDC maternal mortality materials I’ve found.  Is the maternal mortality rate from suicide being overlooked around the globe?

I believe it’s clear from the research in Britain and this new study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology that we can no longer focus solely on physical complications as major contributors to maternal death.  It’s time we started taking pregnant and new mothers mental health more seriously.