Moms in the Military Doing All Right

Depression risk in military women does not increase with deployment after childbirth

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Deploying overseas in the military can be stressful for any soldier. So one could imagine it may be even rougher for women who deploy after having a baby.

But that may not necessarily be the case, according to a recent study that looked at the relationship between deployment, childbirth and depression.

The researchers compared women who deployed before or after giving birth to women who deployed but had no children.

The results showed that only women who deployed and experienced combat after having given birth were more prone to depression. And this higher risk of depression appeared linked to the combat, not to the childbirth or motherhood.

Other women who deployed before giving birth or after having children were at no higher risk of depression than any other woman in the service.

"Seek help for depression."

The study, led by Stacie Nguyen, MPH, of the Department of Deployment Health Research at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego, aimed to understand possible risk factors for depression in military women.

The researchers followed 1,660 women in the military who gave birth during active duty service between 2001 and 2008. The women completed questionnaires about their mental health at the start of the study and during the follow-up period.

The researchers wanted to understand whether deployment was linked to depression in women after childbirth.

The researchers analyzed their data and accounted for the women's age, education, marital status, race/ethnicity, post-traumatic stress symptoms or diagnosis, past depression symptoms, mental health history, service branch and any medications taken.

The researchers found that women who had been deployed before becoming pregnant did not have an increased risk of depression, regardless of whether their previous deployment had involved combat or not.

Similarly, women who deployed to non-combat positions or areas after having given birth were also not at an increased risk for depression compared to other military women who had given birth. In fact, this group had the lowest rate of depression (6.5 percent).

However, women who deployed and experienced combat following the birth of their child were about twice as likely to develop depression. Approximately 16 percent of these women had maternal depression. Yet this depression risk did not appear associated specifically with deployment after having given birth.

When the researchers compared women who deployed to combat after childbirth to non-mothers who deployed to combat, they found that the combat experience itself may have been the link to depression among moms who deployed to combat.

"Previous research has consistently found combat as one of the strongest predictors of post-deployment mental disorders among military personnel," the researchers wrote. "Therefore, it is not surprising to find that combat experience contributes most strongly to the increased risk of depression among deployed women who have previously given birth."

The researchers added that they need to study more individuals to better understand the possible links to depression in these women.

"It is also possible that giving birth and leaving a young child, in addition to the experience of combat, contribute to post-deployment depression, as this study did not have an adequate sample size to fully detect this relationship," the researchers wrote.

Another complicating factor was that 58 percent of the women who screened positive for depression at the follow-up also screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was therefore difficult to pick apart the depression symptoms from PTSD symptoms and how either might be related to deploying after childbirth to a combat zone.

The researchers also noted that deployment of another family member can take its toll on women after childbirth.

"It may be important to note that in contrast to active duty women, military wives appear to have a clearly increased risk for postpartum depression related to a husband’s deployment," the authors wrote.

The study was published in the January issue of the Journal of Women's Health. The research was funded by the US Department of Defense and the Military Operational Medicine Research Program of the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 20, 2013
Last Updated:
February 24, 2013