How do previous mental health, social support, and stressful life events contribute to postnatal depression in a representative sample of Australian women?

Postnatal depression (PND) is a debilitating condition that affects between 10-20% of Australian mothers. Several factors have been found to be predictive of PND, including a higher rate of obstetric interventions, having a caesarean birth, as well as suffering from depression and anxiety during or immediately prior to pregnancy.

However, while a number of studies have examined the predictors of PND, most have focused on events immediately prior to pregnancy and birth. The aim of this study was to examine both short- and long-term risk factors for PND using data collected before, during, and after pregnancy. The study used data from women born 1973-78, who had completed the first four surveys from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health from 1996-2006.

  • The strongest predictor of PND was a history of depression; compared with women who had not reported depression, women who reported depression 3 or 6 years prior to pregnancy were more than twice as likely to experience PND.
  • Stressful life events reported both six years prior to, and at the time of the fourth survey were related to future PND, while women who had less affectionate support/positive social interaction were also at higher risk.
  • Contrary to other studies, demographic factors, including ability to manage on income, area of residence and education level were not associated with PND.

The findings suggest that PND has both short- and long-term risk factors. It is important that healthcare providers are aware of the range of factors that may increase the risk of PND in order to allow for a more targeted detection of women who may develop the condition.

Citation: Chojenta C, Loxton D, Lucke J (2012). How do previous mental health, social support, and stressful life events contribute to postnatal depression in a representative sample of Australian women? Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health, 57(2), 145-150.

Young women becoming more active, and more stressed

Young Australian women are fatter, fitter and more fraught today than they were in the mid-’90s, according to the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health researchers.

The 17-year study, led by the University of Newcastle’s Professor Julie Byles and University of Queensland’s Professor Gita Mishra, found that 70 per cent of women aged between 18 and 23 in 2010 met Australian guidelines for physical activity, compared with 59 per cent in 1996.

Professor Mishra said that while this finding was encouraging, the percentage of overweight and obese young women was increasing.

“In 2013, 33 per cent of the young women surveyed were overweight or obese, compared with 20 per cent in 1996,” she said.

Professor Julie Byles said researchers also found that the prevalence of stress in this age group was higher than in the previous generation of young women surveyed in 1996. She said about half the young women surveyed said they had experienced high or very high psychological stress in the past year.

“The rate was even higher, 55 per cent, for women aged between 18 and 20 years, which probably reflects the stressful transition period between adolescence and young adulthood,” Professor Byles said. “Worryingly, we also found that 59 per cent of these young women had experienced suicidal thoughts in the past year, while 45 per cent had engaged in self-harming behaviour.”

Other notable findings in the report titled Health and wellbeing of women aged 18 to 23 in 2013 and 1996:Findings from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health include:

Physical health: More than one in five young women reported frequent severe tiredness, back pain, headache or period pain, while one in four reported trouble sleeping – double the incidence reported in 1996. About one in three young women had low iron levels, and one in 25 young women had asthma.

Smoking: From 1996 to 2013, the percentage of women aged 18 to 23 who had never smoked increased from 53 per cent to 63 per cent, while there was also a substantial decline in the percentage of current smokers from one in three (32 per cent) to less than one in five (19 per cent).

Drinking: In 2013, one in four young women (26 per cent) drank alcohol weekly or more frequently (compared with 29 per cent in 1996). There was little change in drinking patterns since the 1996 survey.

Violence: One in five young women had experienced physical or sexual violence in the past 12 months while 56 per cent had experienced either form of violence at some point in their lives.

Bullying: One in five young women said they were bullied in the past 12 months while 70 per cent had been bullied at some point in their lives.

Intimate partner violence: The percentage of women who had been in a violent relationship had increased to 13 per cent in 2013, up from 11 per cent in 1996.

Impact of education: Women with less than a year 12 education fared worse in almost all categories surveyed – reporting poorer mental health; higher incidence of being bullied; more likely to have experienced intimate partner violence; more likely to have not used contraception and been pregnant at some stage; less likely to have received the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination.