The Unspoken Pregnancy Complication

Researchers evaluated racial disparities in suicide risk among half a million pregnant people ages 15 to 49.

a graph of suicide

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Whether planned or unplanned, the life-changing experience of pregnancy can have serious effects on a pregnant person’s mental health. While more societal awareness has been brought to postpartum depression, the risk of depression and suicidality before the birth may be just as high.

The occurrence of pregnant individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts and carrying out acts of self-harm has tripled from 2006 to 2017 in the United States, with an estimated 24,000 people with uteruses at risk annually. This risk may be higher for younger persons, those with lower socioeconomic status, and people of color.

Using hospital admissions data from 2016-2017, Hamisu Salihu and colleagues examined the prevalence of suicidal ideation, suicide attempt, and non-suicidal intentional self-harm among 595,237 pregnant individuals between ages 15 to 49. The researchers wanted to evaluate racial disparities in pregnancy suicide risk and grouped the data by Black, Hispanic, and White individuals.

Within this population, 9,670 pregnant people were hospitalized for suicidal ideation, suicide attempt, or intentional self-harm during the year. As seen in the bar graphs, Black pregnant individuals were almost twice as likely to be hospitalized for suicidal ideation or attempt than White pregnant individuals. Suicidal ideation among pregnant patients was the most prevalent of analyzed conditions; actual rates may be even higher than what is reported due to stigma around mental illness.

Pregnant teens between ages 15-19 were three times more likely to experience suicidal ideation, attempt, or self-harm than any other age category. Further, the lower the income, the higher the risk of suicidal ideation and behavior. The risk of suicidal ideation, attempt, or self-harm in this sample population was highest for a pregnant Black teen in a low-income bracket.

People with disabilities and trans people with uteruses are often excluded from reproductive health studies, as are American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Asian Pacific Islander people. Inclusion of all populations in this suicide risk research will help highlight which people and communities would benefit the most from mental health resources during pregnancy.

Hamisu M Salihu, Deepa Dongarwar , Emmanuella Oduguwa et al. Racial/Ethnic Disparity in Suicidal Ideation, Suicide Attempt and Non-suicidal Intentional Self-harm Among Pregnant Women in the United States. Journal of Immigrant Minority Health, 2022.