Depression is the largest factor for substance use during pregnancy, research finds

New research from Western university shows that depression is the single largest driver of substance use during pregnancy. Researchers hope that the study will emphasis the need for mental health services for pregnant mothers.

The study is the first in Canada to focus on the predictors for substance use in expectant mothers

Western researchers have found that depression is the primary risk factor for substance use during pregnancy, and is more important than education, income or age. Associate professor Jaime Seabrook says that the main takeaway from the findings is to advocate for more mental health resources for expectant mothers. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Researchers at Western University have released a new study showing depression is the primary risk factor for cannabis, tobacco and alcohol use during pregnancy.

According to the research, pregnant women who suffered depression were 2.6 times more likely to use cannabis and twice as likely to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol while pregnant.

Analyzing data from over 25,000 pregnant women across southwestern Ontario, the study is the largest of its kind in Canada to show that depression during pregnancy is the main risk factor for cannabis, tobacco and alcohol use. 

Jaime Seabrook is an associate professor at Brescia University College and Western's Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, and Scientist at Children's Health Research Institute. (Travis Dolynny/CBC)
It was even higher than education, age or income factors in their findings.


One of the researchers, Jamie Seabrook, an associate professor at Brescia University College, says there's currently very limited research on predictors of drug use during pregnancy. 

"We know that alcohol, cannabis and tobacco are the most commonly used, and we know that all three substances are associated with adverse birth outcomes," he said. 

"But we really don't know a whole lot [especially in Canada] on what actually predicts alcohol, cannabis and tobacco use during pregnancy in the first place."

Seabrook hopes that the findings can open up a much-needed discussion about mental health for pregnant mothers to not only improve their overall health, but also the health of their baby.

"Because depression was the top predictor of all three substances, we really need to advocate for mental health programs, ideally very early in pregnancy or even pre-pregnancy, to target these women who are at risk," he said. 

While focusing on expectant mothers' mental health is the big take-away, with the legalization of recreational cannabis, Seabrook does have some concerns. 

"Pregnancy is a time where proper nutrition and what you take in can potentially have harmful affects not only maternally but on the infant outcomes as well," he said. 

Bringing the focus to mental health

From the research, he says that health care providers could screen potentially at risk women very early in pregnancy or pre-pregnancy for any mental health concerns, as depression is highly linked to substance use. 

"If we can advocate for mental health programs like support groups, psychotherapy or putting them on safe medications, this can go a long way not only in terms of birth outcomes but potentially preventing substance use," said Seabrook.

"If we can target mental health and reduce that substance use, I think it can go a long away for improving children's health."