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Researchers aim to develop tool that can predict mental illness

Jennifer Green is a mom of three, and after each pregnancy, she experienced postpartum depression. “Everybody kept telling me it was just the baby blues and it will go away. But I would go into our room, into the closet, and I would just cry. You’re like a shell.”

Pregnancy is a time when many mental health problems become far more prevalent, including depression, anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Dr. Peggy Richter, Head of the Frederick W. Thompson Anxiety Disorders Centre at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, says this makes pregnancy a unique opportunity to better understand the factors that contribute to this vulnerability.

Along with colleague Dr. Neil Rector, they’re leading the Sunnybrook portion of a four-year study that will track about 6,000 women during pregnancy. By understanding the risk factors that lead to mental health problems in pregnancy, the hope is to eventually develop a predictive tool that can apply to everyone.

“The goals of our study really go beyond pregnancy, so ideally we can extrapolate to all people across their lifespan,” says Dr. Richter. “What are the factors that are relevant and put people at risk?”

She says there are many factors to consider, including genetics, the environment, stress and a person’s overall thought processes. For example, if a person’s disposition is to view the glass as half empty, are they more prone to depression?

For this study, researchers will be identifying women who are doing well when they come in for their first healthy pregnancy checkup, which takes place during the first trimester. The study is being run out of Sunnybrook and Mount Sinai Hospital, so women giving birth or receiving care at those locations may be eligible. For more information, talk to your doctor.

Jennifer eventually got the treatment she needed for her depression and anxiety, but says having a predictive tool available would have been really nice.

“Some people may think, this is supposed to be a very happy time in life. Why would you want to know you’re not going to be happy?” says Jennifer, who also started her own personal blog on parenting.

“But because you know something bad is coming, you can be treated for it earlier. It would have been fantastic to know that this is coming and it’s not your fault and here’s what we can do to help you. It would have saved a lot of crying in the closet into my clothes.”


About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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