baby postnatal depression
Mothers with postpartum psychiatric disorder are more at risk of dying. Getty Images

Women who suffer from psychiatric disorders after giving birth like post natal depression and psychosis have a higher mortality rate than other young mothers. They are particularly at risk of committing suicide.

This is the conclusion of a study - the most comprehensive to date on the topic - published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Danish epidemiologists analysed the data of 1,545,837 women who gave birth over the course of four decades, between 1970 and 2011.

Few countries can provide researchers with data registries as rich as Denmark and access to that much information is not common. Because of the wealth of information, the study authors were able to compare very detailed data on the psychiatric state of new mothers with those from other groups of women, over a long period of time.

40% unnatural death causes

Suicide risk for women suffering from postpartum psychiatric disorders had already been described in the past, but such precise comparisons enabled the researchers to better understand the causal link between birth and suicides.

Mortality rates for postpartum psychiatric women were compared to mortality rates for women in the general population including other female psychiatric patients who were already mothers, or, on the contrary, had no children.

In total, 2,699 women had first-onset psychiatric disorders in the three months after birth. Of those 96 died during follow-up. Analysing these numbers, the researchers found that these women were four times more likely to die from natural or unnatural causes than other new mothers.

In the 12 months that followed the birth, suicide rate was also particularly high. The scientists say unnatural causes of deaths accounted for 40.6% of deaths among women with postpartum psychiatric disorders, and that the suicide rates increased dramatically in the five years after the disorder's diagnosis compared with mothers who had no history of psychiatric problems.

Diagnose and treat the disorder

The scientists points out however that the death rates for women with postpartum psychiatric disorders were similar to that of the women with psychiatric problems but no children. For them, it is evidence that the psychiatric disorders that come after a child's birth should be taken as seriously as any other psychiatric disorder.

"The general belief is that a new mother doesn't take her own life, and that she ought to be enjoying motherhood, but the reality isn't always like that. We think it's important that women with postpartum psychiatric disorders are properly diagnosed and get the treatment they need, which possibly can prevent that they commit suicide," says Trine Munk-Olsen, one of the lead author.

In the UK, post-natal depression, the most common postpartum psychiatric disorder, affects around 1 in 10 women.