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The Pros and Cons of Using Antidepressants During Pregnancy

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator


Antidepressants are often a principal means of treating depression and sometimes other mental illnesses. They can help relieve symptoms and drastically improve quality of life but women who are living with depression and become pregnant face a difficult decision: should they continue to take antidepressants even though it may harm their child.

New research published last month in the Archives of General Psychiatry added to the debate of whether the benefits outweigh the potential risks of taking antidepressants during pregnancy.

The study discovered that women who took antidepressants were more likely to have babies with reduced head size. While the significance of reduced head size is unclear, previous research has linked it to behavioral and psychiatric problems later in life.

The extent of the effect of antidepressant use on head size was similar to that seen in previous studies testing the effects of tobacco and marijuana use in pregnancy.

The study also found that women taking antidepressants were twice as likely to have a preterm birth as women who were depressed but did not take medication.

The majority of previous studies have found similar results, but the authors of the study believe that more research should be undertaken. "Trying to balance the possible negative consequences of untreated maternal depression with the unknown potential negative consequences of SSRIs remains an open debate," they wrote. "Prescribing antidepressant medication to pregnant women is a major controversy in current psychiatry."

However, treatment of depression is essential during pregnancy. If a mother does not receive support, she may not be able to provide adequate care for her child. For the nearly 8 percent of women who take antidepressants in the U.S. while pregnant, the decision of whether to discontinue the use of antidepressants is not an easy one.

In addition to depression during and prior to pregnancy, there is also the risk of postpartum depression that can occur subsequently and can interfere with care of the newborn.Overall the risk of birth defects is low, but a decision on whether or not to use antidepressants during pregnancy should be discussed with your health care provider. Psychotherapy, such as counseling or other cognitive behavioral therapy, is often just as an effective of option for mild depression.

For more information on the use of antidepressants during pregnancy, visit the Mayo Clinic’s resources on women and depression.