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Study: Overdose, suicide among biggest causes of death for new moms

Rolf Venema/Flickr
Researchers drug overdoses and suicide are among the leading causes of death for new moms.

If you’re a woman in the United States, you’re more likely to die from pregnancy-related problems than in any other developed country. Now, researchers are shedding more light on why new moms are at risk, beyond obstetric issues like severe hypertension and hemorrhage.

A new study from Michigan State University and the University of California, Merced, tracked 1 million California moms for a year after they gave birth. Three hundred of those women died in during that time. “Obstetric-related disease” was the biggest factor, killing 69 new moms.

But overdoses were the second leading cause of death, with 39 women dying in those first 12 months post-partum. And suicide accounted for another 15 fatalities.

Those problems are typically overlooked when we talk about maternal mortality, says MSU epidemiologist Claire Margerison, the study's co-author. Putting hard numbers behind the issue could help change the conversation.

For instance, while she says pregnancy can be a big motivator for women to stop using drugs, asking for help after they have the baby is scary.

"There are laws and concerns that women have that they will have children taken if they admit they're using drugs,” Margerison says.

New moms may also have lower drug tolerances, she says, which could contribute to more fatal overdoses.

And while many insurance plans cover a six-week postpartum checkup for moms, “after that, they’re pretty much on their own,” Margerison says. “Of course the baby goes back to the doctor, but not the mom. So we think this kind of indicates mom need more attention, help, resources past that six week point."

Yet most of the overdose and suicide deaths happened between six to 12 months post-partum, says Sidra Goldman-Mellor, the study’s lead author.

“After the baby is born, and on into that first year post-partum, they may not have access to insurance anymore,” she says. “You know, Medicaid may lapse, not all Medicaid programs cover women for that first year post-partum. So they may not have access to substance abuse treatment resources anymore. You know the stress of having a baby can increase over the year for some reason, so there could be a lot of mechanisms at work.”   

You can read the full study, including details about why emergency rooms may be key to helping new moms at risk for overdose or suicide, here.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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