Frequent visits to the GP may reveal early stages of postnatal depression

Most mothers are mentally vulnerable after giving birth. A few develop mental disorders - and the earliest sign is frequent contact with the GP. This is the result of a new study from Aarhus University.

Giving birth increases the risk of developing mental disorders. Fatigue, hormonal changes and social conditions are all factors which may correlate in an unfortunate manner, but personality traits also play a role.

A new study from Aarhus University has explored pregnant women’s contact patterns with their GPs prior to the diagnosis of a mental disorder. And the results reveal a particular pattern.

More GP consultations

Women who developed mental disorders after giving birth paid significantly more visits to their GPs - both before and during their pregnancy - than women who did not develop mental disorders.

During the pregnancy alone, the mothers who developed a depression during the first three months after giving birth paid an average of 1.5 more visits to their GPs than their non-depressed fellow new mothers.

Women who were later hit by depression also consulted their GPs significantly more often immediately upon giving birth compared with non-depressed women.

Mentally vulnerable, but not in treatment

The study shows that women who develop mental disorders after giving birth consult their GPs more often than the control groups of the study. This pattern is clearly evident for up to two years before the pregnancy, but the tendency is likely to be present long before that.

This suggests that mothers who develop postnatal depressions without having previously been diagnosed with mental disorders represent a particularly vulnerable group. And for some, pregnancy seems to lead to a high risk of mental disorders.  This hypothesis is supported by the notion that the GPs performed more depression tests and offered more talk therapy to this group following the actual birth.

New opportunities for early identification

The new study aims to uncover new opportunities for the early identification of women who are mentally particularly vulnerable and who are thereby more likely to develop mental disorders after giving birth.

“Pregnant women have a least three planned control visits to their GP. This presents an obvious opportunity for paying close attention to particularly vulnerable pregnant women who show the early signs of e.g. depressions,” says Trine Munk-Olsen, who is the main author of the study.

However, she also emphasises that further research is needed to be able to make more precise predictions as to which women fall ill after giving birth. This will allow for early preventive action which may improve the prognosis of the individual women. GPs often represent the first point of contact to the healthcare system, and they play a vital role in this work.

The article “Use of primary health care prior to a postpartum psychiatric episode” has just been published in the scientific journal Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care.

Facts about the study

  • The cohort study is based on data from Danish women who gave birth between 1996-2010.
  • The data was obtained from the Danish healthcare system and national registers.
  • Just under 2,400 of the women were diagnosed with a mental disorder during the first year after giving birth.
  • The women were divided into four groups: mothers with a postnatal depression 0-3 months after giving birth, mothers with a postnatal depression 3-12 months after giving birth, and two control groups.
  • The researchers measured the women’s contact pattern with their GPs by calculating different key figures in relation to GP usage and analysing the differences between the groups of mothers.

Further information

Senior researcher Trine Munk-Olsen
Aarhus University, Department of Economics and Business Economics, the National Centre for Register-Based Research and MEPRICA
Mobile: +45 4013 8841
Office: +45 8716 5749