More Evidence That Antidepressants Are A Much-Needed Therapy, Not A Threat

A suite of three studies published Wednesday gives additional insight into the safety of antidepressant use during pregnancy: While there may be some slightly higher risks, the medications are a safe and important treatment for women with moderate to severe depression.

Estimates of depression rates during pregnancy vary between 5.5 percent to 33.1 percent — a wide range that indicates more research is needed on the issue. More than 400,000 babies are born to depressed mothers every year in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and we know that untreated depression during pregnancy is risky for both mother and baby: Suicide is the number one cause of maternal death in the developed world, and untreated depression during pregnancy is linked to preeclampsia, preterm delivery, low birth weight and other complications for the baby.

But fears about the effects that antidepressants have on a developing fetus prevent many women from using this much-needed mental health treatment during their pregnancies. Researchers estimate that only about half of depressed pregnant women are taking antidepressants.

Concerns about antidepressants during pregnancy are compounded by the lack of clinical trials evaluating once and for all whether or not antidepressants are harmful. And while randomized controlled experiments would be unethical and thus hard to come by, there are ways of deciphering the risks that antidepressants or untreated depression would pose to mother and child.

Three recent studies among large cohorts of Norwegian, Danish and Australian women are shedding light on the risks of the most common type of prescribed antidepressant: selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. They found that SSRI use during pregnancy carries some small risks, but researchers concluded that the risks weren’t significant enough to indicate that women should stop taking the medicine.

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