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Prenatal depression higher in Pacific women living in New Zealand - study

Researchers at the University of Auckland are calling for better primary healthcare for Pacific women after findings show they are more likely to experience symptoms of depression during pregnancy.

The University of Auckland study of 6000 children in the Auckland, Counties Manukau and Waikato District Health Board areas, published in the Journal of Primary Health Care, shows that 23 per cent of Pacific women experienced symptoms of prenatal depression (meaning depression before birth - while they are pregnant), compared with other ethnic groups.

About 14 per cent of other women, and only about eight per cent of European women, experienced the symptoms.

Lead researcher Dr Lisa Underwood, from the University of Auckland's Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, told 1 NEWS research showed prenatal depression recorded at high rates which was a concern, especially considering it is much less talked about than the commonly-known postnatal depression.

The prevalence of depression during pregnancy has been estimated at seven per cent, 14 per cent, and 12 per cent for first, second, and third trimesters respectively.

"It's important that we encourage people to talk about their mental health," she said, adding that she hoped medical professionals used the findings to help treat patients.

"We want them to think "hang on, should I be asking these questions?"."

Ms Underwood did not know why Pacific women stuck out so much in the findings, but said they were at greater risk from several factors including if they did not have regular doctor or GP visits, if they were under 25 years old, if they suffered moderate to severe nausea during pregnancy and if they identified as experiencing high stress.

While the number of Pacific women who did have regular doctors or GPs they visit were higher than other ethnicities, those that didn't were at higher risk, she said.

"Our figures show that around 44 per cent of New Zealand Pacific women without a GP experienced symptoms of prenatal depression and that’s really concerning.

"This is clearly a group of vulnerable women who do not have access to primary healthcare but are in desperate need of it."

Ms Underwood says it is important to understand what contributes to the higher rates of depressive symptoms among pregnant Pacific women in New Zealand so that appropriate and targeted interventions can be developed.

"We know that depression during pregnancy means the mum-to-be is at greater risk of postnatal depression and that outcomes for the baby may also be affected."

Identifying specific factors could help medical professionals to better screen pregnant Pacific women and therefore provide appropriate support, she said.

The study was also useful in identifying factors which are that can help prevent prenatal depression in pregnant Pacific women.

Having a sense of identity and being in a positive relationship were big indicators which helped, Ms Underwood said.

"Protection from developing depression symptoms include having a strong sense of identity and connectedness to home, and women connected to Kiwi culture ... that feeling of belonging and connectedness.

"When women are isolated they're not feeling that connectedness."

The study, which is funded by the Government and has been managed via a contract with the Ministry of Social Development since 2017, has followed the 6000 children from before birth and intends to continue until the children are at least 21 years old. 

Close-up of pregnant woman relaxing and sitting on the side on the sofa. Holding a hands on the tummy.
Source: istock.com