Female Veterans Face Much High Mental Health Risks During Pregnancy

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Doctors and researchers know that women face a range of mental health challenges during pregnancy, but new research concludes that prior military service ups that risk significantly.

In a case study and study review published in January 2015 in the Journal of Women’s Health, a team of American researchers sought to determine if women with a history of military service face a more complicated mental health picture during pregnancy than their counterparts who did not serve in the military. These researchers concluded that military service frequently adds a significant layer of risk for mental health problems during pregnancy.

Mental Health and Pregnancy

Pregnant women naturally undergo major alterations in their hormone production. In combination with additional potential pressures such as economic vulnerability, changes in job status and more general changes in daily life circumstances, hormonal shifts during pregnancy create a significant source of mental/emotional stress and increase the risks for the onset of a serious mental health issue. Statistically speaking, pregnant women have the highest chances of developing illnesses classified as depressive disorders or anxiety disorders. Depending on the data used for analysis, anywhere from 5 percent to 25-plus percent of all pregnant women in the U.S. develop depression symptoms that vary in severity from mild to severe. Particularly common forms of anxiety disorder among pregnant women include panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

The postpartum period presents additional mental health risks for women. Roughly 12 percent to 13 percent of new mothers in the U.S. develop a subtype of major depression known as postpartum depression in the days, weeks or months following childbirth. In addition, small numbers of women develop a rare illness called postpartum psychosis. Risks for postpartum psychosis are typically highest in women with a history of bipolar disorder or a schizophrenia-related condition called schizoaffective disorder.

Women, Mental Health and Military Service

Compared to men, all women have substantially elevated chances of developing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of such things as exposure to sexual assault or physical assault, exposure to combat or acts of terror, exposure to natural disasters and exposure to life-threatening illness. Statistically speaking, combat exposure and sexual assault are two of the sources of trauma most likely to result in the onset of PTSD. Women who serve in the modern military have relatively high chances of serving in active combat zones or being directly involved in combat situations. Compared to men, women in the military also have much higher chances of experiencing acts of sexual assault. In addition, combat-exposed women develop diagnosable symptoms of depression substantially more often than their male counterparts.

Unique Risks During Pregnancy

In the case study and study review published in the Journal of Women’s Health, researchers from the Veterans Administration and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center assessed the differences in the mental health risks of pregnant military veterans and pregnant women who have never served in the military. The researchers also assessed the differences in risk among pregnant veterans who were deployed in active combat theaters and pregnant veterans who never underwent combat deployment.

After completing an analysis of a range of previous studies, the researchers concluded that exposure to combat stress is common among today’s women veterans. They also found that roughly 25 percent of all female veterans experience sexual assaults or other forms of sexual trauma while enlisted in the military (regardless of service in combat zones). In addition to seriously increasing the risks for the onset of PTSD, exposure to sexual violence during military service meaningfully boosts the odds that female veterans will develop major depression or other depressive disorders, an anxiety disorder or some form of substance use disorder. Finally, the researchers concluded that female veterans appear to have significantly elevated chances of developing serious mental health issues during pregnancy. In fact, pregnant veterans may develop diagnosable symptoms of a mental illness about 33 percent more often than their service counterparts who don’t become pregnant.

Overall, the study review’s authors concluded that military veterans face unique mental health challenges during pregnancy, whether or not they were deployed to an active combat zone. They point to a lack of comprehensive research on this topic and urge future researchers to continue to explore the connections between military service and increased mental health risks during pregnancy.

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