Understanding how severe mental illness affects women during pregnancy

Dr Clare Taylor, Prof Lucilla Poston, Prof Louise Howard, Dr Hind Khalifeh

We don’t know enough about how severe mental illness, and the drugs used to treat them, affect women during pregnancy. Tommy’s is trying to change this.

This project is now complete. 

Why do we need this research?

Women with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, are more likely to give birth too early, to babies with a low birth weight. They are also more at risk of stillbirth. But at the moment, we don’t know why this is the case.

We don’t know if these women suffer because of the medications that help control their illnesses – including the effects of changing or stopping treatment. We don’t know if instead it might be because of the stress of being ill, or other factors like smoking or obesity.

Tommy’s want to find out more about the health of women with severe mental illness, and the risks and benefits of using antipsychotic medication to treat mental illness during pregnancy.

What happened in this project?

Our researchers looked at a database containing anonymous details of all patients who have been in contact with secondary mental health services at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. This database is linked to hospital records, and information about neonatal intensive care. This enabled our researchers to study the connection between mental illness and the health of mother and baby, during and after pregnancy.

The database includes 456 pregnant women with a history of psychotic disorders. Our researchers used the data to learn more about medication use during pregnancy, and to see if we can predict which pregnant women are most likely to self-harm or suffer a decline in their mental health during pregnancy or after giving birth.

The team found that almost 1 in 10 women with a severe mental illness self-harm during pregnancy. They also found that women with the most severe mental illness were the most likely to see their mental health decline after birth.

What difference will this project make?

This project has improved our understanding of how severe mental illnesses can affect women during pregnancy. This could help doctors improve the support they give to pregnant women with psychotic disorders, and help improve health and wellbeing for them and their baby.

Thanks for your interest in our research

Tommy's funds research across the UK investigating the reasons for miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. We can keep you updated on ways you can support our work. If you would like to join our fight against baby loss and premature birth, click here.

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