UMD Study Shows Longer Maternity Leave Lowers Risk of Postpartum Depression

Thirteen percent of all mothers experience postpartum depression, with debilitating symptoms similar to clinical depression the first year after childbirth. A study led by Dr. Rada K. Dagher, assistant professor of health services administration at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, shows that if a woman can take up to six months leave after giving birth the more protected she will be from post-partum depression. This study measured symptoms using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, a widely used depression screening tool.

Dr. Dagher said that in the United States the majority of working mothers do not take more than three months of leave.  The study published in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law shows that returning to work sooner that six month after having given birth poses an increased risk of postpartum depressive symptoms. The study used data from the Maternal Postpartum Health Study, collected by Dr. Patricia McGovern, professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and a co-author on this study. The Maternal Postpartun Health Study followed a group of more than 800 women in Minnesota over the course of the first postpartum year and gathered data about depressive symptoms and mental and physical health at 6 weeks, 12 weeks, 6 months and 12 months postpartum. At each timeframe, women on maternity leave showed significantly lower postpartum depression scores compared to their peers who had returned to work.

The study concluded that the Family and Medical Leave Act which provides up to 12 weeks of time off  may not be sufficient for mothers at risk for or experiencing postpartum depression. The study goes on to suggest that future leave policy debates should consider the postpartum health of mothers. Finally, the study suggests that employers should consider providing more generous time off than the 12 weeks of unpaid leave granted by the FMLA by expanding the duration of leave whether paid on unpaid. (Editor’s Note: The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act was recently proposed in the Senate, although its fate remains unclear.)

It should be noted that while women employed at places that have 50 or more employees have a legal right to take up to 12 weeks off under the FMLA, many women do not work for larger employers nor can they afford to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Therefore, most women are back to work as soon as they are physically able to perform their job duties. This situation neglects a mother’s mental health.  The USA provides far less parental leave than other industrialized nations. For example, in this study, only about 7 percent of the mothers were back to work by 6 weeks, 46 percent by 12 weeks, and 87 percent by 6 months. Generally the US government, as employer, leads the way in employee rights. The federal government, however, provides no maternity leave whatsoever. Women who give birth while working for the federal government are expected to use sick leave (paid), annual leave (paid) and/or FMLA (unpaid) if you have no sick or annual leave. If the government is truly interested in employee rights, mental health, and family values it should consider 6 months of maternity leave for its employees.