Pregnant military spouses whose partners are deployed are at a higher risk for developing postpartum depression and mental health issues during pregnancy, according to a new report in the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

On top of the “relatively unique circumstances” military families encounter, including frequent forced moves away from family and friends, researchers write that the fear and anxiety of a deployment are linked to increased depression during the perinatal period, defined in the study as the time between conception and one year after giving birth.

The report by researchers at the Anglia Ruskin University Veterans and Families Institute in the U.K. evaluated 13 U.S. studies on women whose spouses served across all five branches of the military.

One particular study the researchers looked at focused specifically on 397 Army spouses at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. About 16 percent of women whose partners were deployed during their entire pregnancy struggled with postpartum depression, compared to 6 percent of women whose partners were not deployed. Those women were also more likely to give birth before they reached full term, a risk of anxiety and stress during pregnancy, researchers write.

The American Pregnancy Association defines depression during pregnancy as a mood disorder, or biological illness that involves changes in brain chemistry, similar to clinical depression. Hormone changes, exacerbated by difficult life situations, can cause expectant mothers to be depressed.

Left untreated, this can lead to poor nutrition, suicidal and other negative behaviors, which can cause premature birth and developmental problems.

In analyzing the American studies, the Veterans and Families Institute researchers found that in addition to depression, deployment also increased the pregnant spouse’s chances of anxiety, sleep disorders and adjustment disorders.

“The evidence suggests that social support is an important protective factor for military spouses during the perinatal period,” they write. “Support tailored to the needs of military spouses rather than generic perinatal support may be advantageous.”

Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.

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