New research announced to reduce high suicide rates in pregnant women and new mums

Content warning: discussion of suicide

A $100,000 research project will help build understanding of the factors contributing to suicide attempts in pregnant women and new mums. The research aims to develop effective ways to assess and manage suicidal risk in this vulnerable group.

Suicide is the leading cause of maternal death in Australia during pregnancy and the 12 months following birth. This is despite the fact that women in this period have regular contact with care providers including midwives, GPs, obstetricians, and maternal health nurses.

The first-of-its-kind study aims to explore and explain women’s experiences of suicidality during pregnancy and the year following birth, a time known as the perinatal period, with the ultimate aims of:

  • Understanding factors that may contribute to suicide at this time in women’s lives
  • Identify factors protective against suicidal behaviours
  • Informing suicide prevention strategies for women during pregnancy and the year after birth

“In order to identify and introduce effective suicide prevention measures for expecting and new mums, we need to build a better understanding of this phenomenon,” says the study’s lead investigator, Dr

Laura Biggs from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

“Very little is known about women’s experiences of suicidality during pregnancy and the first year following birth. What we do know is that suicide is the leading cause of maternal death in Australia, and that women’s suicidal behaviour has unique characteristics around this time.”

“Given this uniqueness, we need to better understand factors that may contribute to and prevent suicide in the perinatal period. Our study aims to develop a model that explains suicidality during pregnancy and the year following birth. We can then use these findings to help us care for and support women and their families impacted by suicidality.”

Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, James Cook University, and service provider and consumer advocacy group, Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA) will collaborate on the study.

“The involvement of women with lived experience of suicidality during this potentially vulnerable time are crucial to the success of this project,” says Professor Melanie Birks, Head of Nursing and

Midwifery at James Cook University and co-investigator on the project. Professor Birks is an internationally recognised expert in the research methodology to be used in this study as well as an experienced academic.

“The knowledge that is gained from this study will inform health professional education and practice, increasing the likelihood that suicidality in the perinatal period can be identified and effectively managed.”

PANDA’s central role will ensure that people who have experienced perinatal suicidality are meaningfully involved throughout the life of the project by contributing to the study design, data collection and analysis, and the communication of key findings.

“PANDA is committed to ensuring people with lived experience of perinatal mental illness are heard and are able to influence governments, health professionals, researchers, employers and the wider community. We believe that the voice of our consumers allows us to advocate for and address these really big and confronting areas of need,” says Julie Borninkhof, PANDA CEO, “This commitment is why we are so pleased to be partnering with MCRI and JCU on this important research.”

PANDA Community Champion volunteer Angela Hind experienced postnatal depression following the birth of her second child, with the illness prompting suicidal thoughts and plans. Ms Hind wants to share her experience as part of the study to help other mums going through similar difficulties.

“When you are in such a dark place, you feel like a burden on everyone,” she says. “I hope that this study can help women get the support they need. If sharing my experience can help just one other mum feel less alone, then that is fantastic.”

Funding for the project, to commence in early 2020, was sourced from the Federal Government’s Suicide Prevention Research Fund managed by the national peak body for suicide prevention, Suicide Prevention Australia.

MCRI is a globally recognised research centre, ensuring the rigorous and robust research results will be directly translatable, changing clinical practice to improve outcomes for this at-risk group.

The 12-month project will begin recruiting participants in early 2020, with the results leading to larger scale studies and pilot interventions.

Study investigators:

Lead investigator Dr Laura Biggs, RM, BMid (Hons), PhD: Research Officer at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, and Policy Coordinator at PANDA – Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia. Co-investigator Professor Melanie Birks, RN, BN, MEd, PhD, FACN: Professor and Head of Nursing and Midwifery at James Cook University, Australia.

Co-investigator Ms Mitzi Paderes, RN, MSN (Mental Health): National Helpline and Programs Manager at PANDA

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