Pregnant vets are more likely than their peers to experience mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, according to a recent study. When I first read this headline, I thought, well that’s not so surprising. Those are issues common to veterans after witnessing and experiencing the horrors of war. So why wouldn’t women who have served in the army be at greater risk? Well, it turns out that their “peers” were slightly different than I’d thought. The study was not comparing pregnant vets to other pregnant women. It was comparing pregnant vets to non-pregnant vets. The study looked at 43,078 female veterans who served in Afghanistan or Iraq and were treated at the Veterans Health Administration over the course of five years.
Which means the apparent factor that increased the risk of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder was not war… but pregnancy?
The study’s authors came up with a few possible explanations for this.
1. Getting pregnant may be the result of “risky behavior,” which veterans are known to be more likely to engage in after coming home from war, particularly if they’re suffering from mental disorders.
2. Women who get pregnant but don’t have mental health symptoms are not reporting their pregnancies to the Veteran’s Hospital Association. (The Association does not offer prenatal care, so women who are pregnant but don’t need veteran-specific healthcare might not be interacting with the Association.)
3. Veterans with mental health disorders seek treatment for the disorders at the Veteran’s Hospital Association and are found to be pregnant while seeking treatment.
So these findings may be some combination of a real syndrome and skewed numbers. I wonder whether there are any other explanations. Is there something about pregnancy that might trigger underlying stress and mental illness? Could there be a hormonal element? Could the experience of pregnancy be a challenge to the recovery from the mental trauma of war? The Veteran’s Hospital Association acknowledges that they need to further investigate the association between pregnancy and mental illness among its vets in response to the study findings. It’ll be interesting to see whether they unearth any deeper associations.
Read the L.A. Times story.
photo: The U.S. Army/Flickr