Women are twice as likely as men to have anxiety and depression, and while these conditions can be difficult to treat, there’s therapy and a lot of different medicines available to help patients cope. But during a pregnancy, medication for depression and anxiety might not be an option, making it more challenging to grapple with these exhausting and often painful illnesses.
Among pregnant people who have anxiety and/ or depression, options can be a bit more limited, because there’s no consensus among health experts on how risky it is for expecting moms to take anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. NPR reports that some older studies found that benzodiazepines (a class of drugs that Xanax, a common anti-anxiety medication, belongs to) were associated with some birth abnormalities, but more recent studies have found that’s not necessarily the case. There are other risks that have been found more recently for some drugs that can help with anxiety and depression, however.
In the studies that have been conducted on the effects of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs on pregnancy, some risks have been identified. The good news is that the risks are quite low, but they still present serious considerations for expecting moms and their doctors to consider. Different medications have different risks: Among the risks are increased likelihood of fetal lung and heart problems, according to the Mayo Clinic. But some medications are considered totally safe for pregnancy, including SSRIs, a popular type of antidepressant medication (the popular drug Lexapro is an SSRI).
Despite the risks involved, it’s worth it to some pregnant people to take medication for their mental health during pregnancy. While it’s true that antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications pose some risks to pregnancy, so too does not treating these issues while pregnant! According to Parents, untreated anxiety and depression during pregnancy can lead to premature birth, a lowered birth weight, and lower overall newborn health, among other issues. This leaves expecting moms with a really tough decision to make, on top of suffering mentally and maybe physically as well.
While some moms-to-be will avoid taking medication after deciding that’s what is best for them and their pregnancy, others take meds because they feel they need to in order to make it through the pregnancy and to be a good parent. Earlier this year, writer and new mom Liz Tracy wrote about her decision to continue taking Wellbutrin XL, which treats certain types of depression, during her pregnancy. She received mixed advice from two psychiatrists she saw while pregnant, but Tracy writes that she “needed to be medicated to function under the stressful transitions pregnancy brings.” For Tracy and her pregnancy, the risks didn’t outweigh the overall benefits her medication brought to her life.
But testing of drugs of many kinds, including antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, have been really limited in pregnant women. The reasons here are mostly obvious: There are likely a bunch of extra risks to the fetus and, potentially, the pregnancy overall when certain new medicines are thrown into the mix, so research on the impacts of some prescription drugs among pregnant patients aren’t very common. The information that does exist is often conflicting.
Not only has medical testing been few and far between for pregnant people, but for women in general. In fact, the National Institute of Health didn’t establish its Office of Research on Women’s Health until 1990 following rising concerns that women weren’t included in medical studies and clinical trials. Clinical trials still tend to skew toward men.
Medical research and advice on the potentially adverse impact of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications is confusion and sometimes conflicting. Ultimately, a mom has to decide what’s best for her: Can she handle the pregnancy without medication that helps? Or does she need the medicine to make it through? It’s a tough decision, and more research could help both families and doctors make even more informed decisions.
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