Researchers claim there is an urgent need to address mental health issues associated with pregnancy and childbirth.
Iain McGowan and Professor Marlene Sinclair of the University of Ulster say suicide is the cause of a small but significant number of deaths among women while pregnant or within the first year of giving birth.
A recent study found that 129 women in the UK took their own lives while pregnant or in the first year of their child’s life between 1985 and 2002.
“Pregnancy and parenting are generally seen to be fulfilling and rewarding,” said Mr McGowan, a nursing lecturer.
“However, the reality for a number of women is that the physical, emotional and social upheaval of having children can leave them vulnerable to social isolation, loneliness and perhaps hopelessness.
“All of which can lead to mental health problems and, in extreme cases, possible attempts on their own life.”
The academics believe international research collaborations are needed to find better ways to help midwives and other healthcare professionals identify and treat women who are at risk of suicide or developing mental health problems.
“Midwives play a crucial role in caring for women,” said Professor Sinclair, an expert in Midwifery Research.
“Normally the midwife is the main carer for women at this time of their life. It is essential that midwives have the knowledge and skills to identify those at risk of mental health problems.
“This is particularly true in assessing those in crisis so that they can refer women to the appropriate mental healthcare providers.”
The research found that all the women who took their lives were aged over 19 years, with 68% suffering violent suicides.
Half of the suicides up to 1999 and 66% from 2000 had been treated by their GP or psychiatrist for a mental health issue, with 70% having a probable psychiatric illness at time of death.
The issue will be discussed at a five-day international suicide prevention conference held this week in Ireland.
‘Preventing Suicide Across the Lifespan: Dreams and Realities’ will feature contributions from survivors of suicide, care-givers, researchers, policy makers and representatives from the broad spectrum of healthcare professions.
Other issues to be discussed include elderly, child and adolescent, and copycat suicide.