Depression drives substance use during pregnancy

Special to Western NewsWestern researchers Jamie Seabrook, right, and Rachel Brown see their work linking depression to substance use during pregnancy as a call to action for greater supports of the mental health of mothers-to-be.

The discovery that depression is the single largest driver of substance use during pregnancy – more important than education, income, or age – highlights the need for greater supports for the mental health of mothers-to-be, according to Western researchers.

“Pregnant women who were depressed were 2.6 times more likely to use cannabis and twice as likely to smoke cigarettes and use alcohol while pregnant,” said Jamie Seabrook, a professor at Brescia University College and the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “We don’t know when the substance use first began, but we do know that it was continuing during pregnancy and that is a big risk factor for poor maternal and infant health outcomes.”

Stacks of previous research has established that tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis use during pregnancy is associated with poor birth outcomes, yet many women continue to use these substances during pregnancy.

For this Western study, the largest of its kind ever in Canada, the research team analyzed health and geographical data from more than 25,000 pregnant women in Southwestern Ontario.

“This really highlights the importance of programming for mental health, including mental-health promotion strategies, psychotherapy and safe and proper medication for mental health during pregnancy,” said MSc candidate Rachel Brown, first author on the paper. “The research shows that there is an effect later on in life as well with infants that are born preterm or low birth weight. To intervene or advocate for mental health programs for the mom, the idea is that it sets up the health of the infants later on in life.”

The research team points out that this research is especially important in Canada with the recent legalization of recreational cannabis.

“Let’s help women with their mental health to improve their overall health and in doing so, improve the health of their baby,” Seabrook said.

The study, Predictors of drug use during pregnancy: The relative effects of socioeconomic, demographic, and mental health risk factors, was published recently in the Journal of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine.