Suicide is one of the leading causes of maternal death in many developed countries. Griffith’s Professor David Ellwood has called for more research to be done to understand the causes and how these tragic deaths can be prevented.

Professor Ellwood, from the Menzies Health Institute Queenslandsays in Queensland the statistics show that suicide is now the main cause of maternal death.

A maternal death can be classified as being during pregnancy or the first six weeks after the pregnancy, while a ‘late maternal’ death can be classified as up to 12 months following birth.

“Our latest figures for 2012 -2014 show a total of eight deaths from suicide out of a total of 40 maternal deaths in the state; this is 20 per cent, with most of them being classified as late maternal death,” says Professor Ellwood, also the Chair of the Queensland Maternal and Perinatal Quality Council (QMPQC).

Alarming figures

“These are alarming figures and ones which are broadly being replicated across the country and in other OECD countries such as the UK and New Zealand. Health professionals need to work closer with our colleagues and the broader community so we can reduce this leading cause of death.”

Professor Ellwood says the causes of maternal suicide are complex but include a lack of specific mental health services for women following birth, as well as some concern that domestic violence could also play a part.

“About 30 per cent of the first onset of violence is when the woman is pregnant at a time when she is most vulnerable and reliant on support from her partner,” says Professor Jenny Gamble, Head of Midwifery at Griffith.

“The picture is broader though in terms of perinatal mental health. Some women develop mental health issues through the pregnancy and postpartum, with around 15 % of women having antenatal depression and about 20 % having postnatal depression, so we need to ensure that primary maternity services are tailored towards women getting sensitive relationship-based care in the community.

“At Griffith we are currently researching providing one-to-one midwifery care which will mean improved psychosocial and perinatal mental health services during and following pregnancy.”