– Self-harm was the leading cause of pregnancy-associated
deaths in Colorado from 2004 to 2014, ahead of car
crashes, medical conditions and homicide, according to researchers at the University of
Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
The study, “Maternal Deaths from Suicide and
Overdose in Colorado, 2004-2012,” found that of 211 maternal deaths, 30 percent
were from self-harm, defined as suicide and nonintentional overdose deaths
occurring during pregnancy and the first year after giving birth. In Colorado,
the mortality rate from self-harm during the period was 9.6 per 100,000 live
births. About 90 percent occurred in the postpartum period.
It is not known how the demographics and
characteristics of maternal deaths in Colorado compare to other states or if
such self-harm deaths are becoming more common. According to the study, in 2012
suicide was overall the most common cause of death in Colorado among those age
10 to 44.
is focus nationally on reduction in maternal mortality, and the majority of
this effort has focused on in-hospital causes of death such as postpartum
hemorrhage,” said lead author Torri Metz, MD, assistant professor of
maternal-fetal medicine at the CU School of
Medicine. “As the Colorado Maternal Mortality Review Committee
reviewed the maternal deaths in Colorado, we noticed that there was a large
proportion of deaths from suicide and overdose. Our data supports that
self-harm is in fact the leading cause of pregnancy-associated death in
Colorado, which warrants our attention.”
The findings are published in the December edition of “Obstetrics & Gynecology.”
During the study period, 63 women died of suicide or a drug
overdose. Of the 26 who died of suicide, asphyxia by hanging was the most
common cause of death. In overdose deaths in which toxicology testing was
performed at autopsy, opioids were the most detected class of drugs, chiefly
pharmaceutical painkillers but also heroin.
Substance abuse and psychiatric disorders, most often depression,
were present in a majority of the women with maternal deaths. However, no risk
factor was present in 22 percent of the cases.
Although about half the self-harm cases were found to be taking
prescription drugs for mental health care at conception, 48 percent stopped
using the medications during pregnancy, in some cases with a care provider’s
recommendation but in most without. During pregnancy, selective serotonin
reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) were the most commonly discontinued drug class
alongside sleep aids, mood stabilizers and other antidepressants.
finding speaks to the importance of an informed discussion of the risks and
benefits of continuing psychiatric medications during pregnancy,” Metz said.
“Ideally this would occur prior to conception. The benefit of continuing
medications, especially SSRIs in women with depression, frequently
strongly outweighs the risk.”
Researchers also found that many of the women had documented
social stressors, most notably unemployment (64%) or being single, divorced or
separated (40%). Though such stressors, also including a history of domestic
violence (18%) and unstable living situation (5%), were documented in a
majority of the women, only one third engaged with a social worker either
during prenatal care or at delivery.
During pregnancy and after delivery, woman at risk for self-harm
may encounter health care providers such as social workers, nurses and
physicians. Researchers say each point of contact with such women should be
considered an opportunity for intervention throughout and after pregnancy. They
suggest that raising awareness, better health screening, referrals for treatment
of mental health and substance use disorders in pregnancy and recognition of
the need for ongoing care beyond the early postpartum period is needed to
reduce pregnancy-related deaths from self-harm.