Expectant Millennial Mothers More Depressed During Pregnancy Than Women 25 Years Ago, Study Says

A pregnant woman poses in Vertou, France. Millennial women are more likely to feel depressed during pregnancy than their mothers were 25 years earlier, a new study claims. (Photo by Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)

Researchers have credited the "millennial mental health crisis" to academic pressure, perfectionism, lower wages and social media, among other factors. A new study adds pregnancy to the list: Young women are more likely to feel depressed before they give birth than their mothers did one generation earlier.

Depression in young mothers is 51 percent more common than it was 25 years ago, researchers claim in a study published Friday in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Network Open.

The study followed two generations of mothers in southwest England, all pregnant between 19 and 24 years old. It found that the women who gave birth between 2012 and 2016 scored higher on depressive symptom tests than their mothers who were pregnant between 1990 and 1992.

Of the nearly 2,400 first-generation mothers, 17 percent experienced prenatal depression. But rates were much higher among their daughters. One-fourth of young women surveyed reported high scores of symptoms like unnecessary self-blame, sleeping problems, and anxiety or worry.

The study credited inflexible work arrangements, mounting financial pressures and difficulty balancing work and home life with rising depression rates.

Researchers warn the risk of depression is likely higher among 18-year-old mothers, who weren't included in the study.

"Given that very young age at pregnancy is a risk factor for depression, this would suggest that, if anything, depression in [millennial women] is underestimated and the increase could be greater," lead author Rebecca Pearson wrote.

A mother's depression may indicate the potential for same symptoms in her daughter. Nearly 54 percent of second-generation daughters whose mothers were depressed during pregnancy reported depression before giving birth, evidence that prenatal maternal depression is intergenerational.

Women are twice as likely as men to feel depressed, a 2018 National Center for Health Statistics report found. The gender gap starts young; girls typically reach puberty before boys do and feel the pangs of its hormonal changes earlier. Rates of depression between men and women remain unequal until after menopause.

Similar hormonal fluctuations could explain why diagnoses are common during pregnancy and after giving birth. Postpartum depression affects up to 15 percent of new mothers, the Mayo Clinic reported, caused in part by new sources of stress, hormonal shifts, bodily changes and intense sleep deprivation.

Traumatic events like sexual assault, which one in five women have experienced, can also trigger depression, as can the "chronic, low-grade stress" of long-term caregiving, according to a Harvard Medical School mental health letter. Women are also poorer economically on average than men, and the wage gap, too, can induce depressive symptoms.