"We wanted to see whether and how intimate partner abuse — physical,
psychological and sexual — influenced postpartum mental health in
women, including problems such as depression, stress, anxiety,
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and PTSD," said Dr. Sarah
Desmarais, an assistant professor of psychology at NC State and lead
author of a paper on the work.
The researchers interviewed 100
women from British Columbia who were largely from higher
socioeconomic backgrounds and were not considered at high risk of
postpartum mental health problems. The study participants were
recruited to participate in a broad health and wellness study that
was not specifically focused on domestic abuse.
Sixty-one percent of the study participants reported symptoms of
postpartum mental health problems within the first three months
after childbirth, and 47 percent of the 100 women reported symptoms
at "clinical" levels, meaning the symptoms were of at least moderate
Eighty-four percent of the participants reported experiencing
physical, psychological or sexual abuse at the hands of a partner
prior to becoming pregnant. Seventy percent of the 100 participants
reported some form of abuse by their romantic partner during
pregnancy. These forms of abuse ranged from name-calling to rape and
physical assault with a weapon.
"We found that women who had experienced abuse were more likely
to suffer from postpartum mental health problems, and were much more
likely to suffer from those problems if the abuse occurred during
pregnancy," Desmarais said. "In addition, the more types of abuse
they experienced, the more severe the mental health symptoms they
reported. We also found that specific types of abuse were associated
with specific problems."
The researchers found that psychological abuse — verbal and
emotional abuse — was associated with stress and PTSD. Physical
abuse was associated with depression, OCD and PTSD. Sexual abuse was
associated with stress, depression and PTSD.
This means that some mental health problems could stem from any
of the forms of abuse. For example, PTSD is associated with all
three forms of abuse, but could be caused by any one of them;
psychological abuse alone could lead to PTSD.
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"This highlights the need for increased awareness of the
prevalence of these issues, and the need for increased screening for
abuse and mental health problems for pregnant women and new
mothers," Desmarais said.
"The sheer scope of the mental health problems and types of abuse
that we found tells us that we need to take a broader approach to
tackling these issues," Desmarais added. "And this is clearly not a
‘lower class’ problem — medical professionals everywhere need to pay
"But to do this effectively, we need to train doctors, nurses and
hospital staff in how to identify and respond to potential problems
in this area."
The paper, "Intimate partner abuse before and during pregnancy as
risk factors for postpartum mental health problems," is published
online in the open-access journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth. The
paper was co-authored by Ashley Pritchard of Simon Fraser
University; Evan Lowder, a graduate student at NC State; and Dr.
Patricia Janssen of UBC. The research was supported by the British
Columbia Mental Health and Addictions Research Network, the Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Michael
Smith Foundation for Health Research.
To read the study abstract,
news release received from
NC State News Services]