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Partner Abuse Before Pregnancy Linked to Baby Blues

Update Date: Apr 14, 2014 02:48 PM EDT

Domestic abuse boosts the risk of baby blues and post-traumatic stress disorder in mothers, according to a new study.

The latest findings also reveal that certain types of abuse begets specific mental health problems, according researchers at North Carolina State University, Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia.

"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," lead study author Dr. Sarah Desmarais, an assistant professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, said in a news release.

The latest findings involved 100 women from British Columbia with higher socioeconomic backgrounds. These women were not considered to be at risk of postpartum mental health problems, according to researchers. Participants were made to believe that they were recruited in a broad health and wellness study that wasn't specifically focused on domestic abuse.

Researcher found that 61 percent of the study participants reported symptoms of postpartum mental health problems within the first three months after childbirth, and 47 percent reported depressive symptoms at "clinical" levels. Researchers said this means that their depression was at least of moderate severity.

Study data showed that 84 percent of participants reported experiencing physical, psychological or sexual abuse by their partner before becoming pregnant, and 70 percent reported some form of abuse by their romantic partner during pregnancy. Researchers said the abuse ranged from name-calling to rape and 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," said Desmarais. "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 study linked psychological abuse, via verbal and emotional abuse, to stress and posttraumatic stress disorder, and physical abuse to depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. Sex abuse was linked to stress, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.

"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 adds. "And this is clearly not a 'lower class' problem - medical professionals everywhere need to pay attention," she added. "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 findings were published in the open-access journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth.

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