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Previous research has shown that both anxiety and depression among young people broadly are on the rise, but a new study sheds light on a smaller subgroup within that demographic: pregnant women in their late teens and early 20s. The study, published in JAMA Network Open, used data collected from a two-generation group of women living in the same area in England to assess the prevalence of depression among young pregnant women today compared to that among their mothers’ generation.
Researchers specifically studied pregnant women ages 19 to 24, and found that 17 percent of women in the first generation (whose pregnancies occurred between 1990 and 1992) scored as highly depressive on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, whereas 25 percent of women in the second generation (whose pregnancies occurred between 2012 and 2016) scored as highly depressive using the same scale. That means that young pregnant women today are 51 percent more likely to report being depressed than pregnant women in the same age range were 25 years ago. This difference held even when researchers controlled results for possibly confounding variables, like education, smoking, and body mass index.
Still, the authors are cautious. While the depression rate among young pregnant women could genuinely be 8 percent higher than a generation ago, it’s also possible that reduced stigma surrounding mental illness has simply enabled more women to be open about their depressive symptoms. And, perhaps more importantly, because the average age of first pregnancy is later now than it was 25 years ago, researchers suspect that some of that difference could be attributable to an increased isolation felt by women who get pregnant relatively early today — and that, in turn, might contribute to their depression.
Depression is also thought to be (at least partly) genetic, and this study found evidence to support that idea: 54 percent of young pregnant women whose mothers were depressed during pregnancy were also depressed themselves, while only 16 percent of young pregnant women whose mothers were not depressed prenatally were depressed. Depression is thought to affect between 10–15 percent of pregnant women, a rate similar to that seen in postpartum women. And because pre- and postnatal depression can have significant “emotional, behavioral, and cognitive implications” for offspring, researchers say any evidence of an increase should be treated as a significant public-health concern.