Every year, between 152,000 and 324,000 pregnant women experience domestic violence. The health of a pregnant woman is often given the upmost priority since her health can affect her own child. After a recent study by Louise Howard and colleagues at King's College London, a woman's mental health during pregnancy will now be given more care as well.

The UK researchers have established a link between the prevalence of domestic violence and perinatal mental disorders in mothers. The perinatal period is defined as the time shortly before and after the woman gives birth. These periods do not have serious effects on the babies born, but psychological states of the mother are often monitored during this time, as she is accepting the reality of a new child. This is of special interest because a mother's mental state after her child's birth can affect the care she imparts, and ultimately the child's mental health.

The livelihood of a newborn is at risk when a woman faces domestic violence. Domestic violence, or violence against these women by family members or partners, has been proven to increase the likelihood that a child will be miscarried, or delivered prematurely and at a low birth weight. These effects can be a result of the violence itself. But what about their mothers?

Howard and his colleagues performed this research by comparing previously published peer-reviewed research publications regarding domestic violence and its psychological effects on those pregnant women. Based on the comparison of 67 publications and the cases in them, the signs of mental disorders are significantly associated with experiences of domestic abuse.

Across the compared studies, Howard found that most women with mental disorders after the birth of their children had experienced a lifetime of domestic violence, caused by a partner or spouse, with a combination of physical, sexual, and psychological abuses, and about a quarter of these cases occurred in North America.

Violence, as found by researchers from the USQA Center for Health Care Research, occurs in four to eight percent of pregnancies and is commonly associated with unintended pregnancies. These circumstances can potentially affect a woman's mental health during and after pregnancy, but Howard and his team focused predominantly on how the violence itself is linked to mental outcomes after a woman's child is born.

The team chose to base much of this comparison on the symptoms of depression, as they are most common and due to insufficient data regarding posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorder, and perinatal women. However, domestic violence during pregnancy can cause a whole host of psychological issues, including but not limited to depression, PTSD, and anxiety in women after they give birth.

The link between antenatal, or pre-birth, depression and lifetime abuse is greatest, as nearly all cases with a lifetime of domestic violence have greater incidences of depression than those who experienced violence in just the past year or during their pregnancy. Similarly, cases with lifetime of partner violence have the greatest instance of postnatal depression, indicating that the persistence of violence can, indeed, lead pregnant women to have mental disorders after birth. However, this does not discount the effects of violence incurred in the past year or during the pregnancy itself, as those instances indeed increase chances of depression and negative mental health.

Long-term effects of domestic violence over a "lifetime" include malnutrition, panic attacks, self-neglect, and poor adherence to medical recommendations. According to an article written for the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, a history of domestic violence can impair a parent's ability to cultivate her child's development. Other effects can be emotional withdrawal and irritability of the mother toward her child, often making her unable to care for the child's emotional and mental health.

While Howard's team at King's College London has found the link between mental disorders and violence, they have admitted that further work must be done to identify women with histories of mental disorders, or those currently experiencing domestic violence, so that their health outcomes can be improved for optimal parenting.


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Gazmararian JA, Petersen R, Spitz AM, Goodwin MM, Saltzman LE, Marks JS. Violence and reproductive health: current knowledge and future research directions. Matern Child Health J. 2000.

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