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TitleUSD Nursing School Awarded $3.1 Million to Study Depression in New Mothers
ContactLiz Harman
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Largest Research Grant in University History from National Institute of Mental Health

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has awarded $3.1 million to a professor in the University of San Diego Hahn School of Nursing and Health Sciences to research depression in new mothers. The grant, the largest research award in the university’s history, will fund a five-year research project to identify and treat depression in women during pregnancy and after birth.

There is wider recognition today of the large human and economic costs of perinatal depression, said USD Nursing Professor Cynthia D.Connelly but “there is still a lack of identification and treatment of this very common problem.

“Lack of routine screening, rushed patient visits, restrictive insurance coverage and limited mental health services may contribute to at-risk moms not receiving treatment for depression,” Connelly said. “Navigating the mental health care system often can be a daunting task in this age of fragmented health services and complex regulations,” she said. 

The USD study will work with community health care providers, mental health professionals and at-risk women to integrate treatment and screening for depression into traditional ob-gyn care. Some 4,000 pregnant women and new mothers will be screened in San Diego as part of the study with 400 studied even more closely for the kind of care they receive.

The NIMH was supportive of the project because it was developed by a multi-disciplinary team of health care providers, psychologists, sociologists and female patients themselves, Connelly said. “That’s what makes it so innovative.”

Connelly will lead a research team that includes experts from the Child and Adolescent Services Research Center at Rady Children’s Hospital, San Diego County Health and Human Services, UCSD, USC, and Stanford University.

She said the project will also focus on breaking down the stigmas about mental health issues that keep some women from seeking treatment and providing culturally competent screening and treatment tailored to various ethnic communities.

Estimates of maternal depression range from 10 percent to 42 percent and are often nearly double those observed in the general female population, she said. Symptoms can range from simply “feeling blue” to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness and having thoughts of suicide. Affected women may also be struggling with problems with substance abuse or domestic violence. 

Connelly said it’s important to remember that the problems of depression affect not just mothers but families and children as well. Depression in a parent can lead to neglect and poor mother-child interaction that can have “very negative effects on children’s growth and development.”

A study of this magnitude should provide needed information about how to identify and treat depression in pregnant women, Connelly said. “We think it has the potential to make a real difference in helping families.”


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