However, with sexual orientation highly underdocumented among women giving birth, understanding of the prevalence is lacking.
“To our knowledge, this cohort study was the first to examine perinatal depression screening and symptom endorsement among sexual minority women in a major medical center in the U.S.,” reported the authors of the studyin JAMA Psychiatry.
The results “highlight the need for investigations that include strategies for measuring sexual orientation because reliance on medical record review has substantial limitations with regard to the research questions and the validity of the data,” they noted.
Clinical guidelines recommend universal perinatal depression screening at obstetric and pediatric well-infant visits; however, there are significant gaps in data on the issue when it comes to sexual minority women.
To assess the prevalence of sexual minority people giving birth and compare perinatal depression screening rates and scores with those of heterosexual cisgender women, the authors conducted a review of medical records of 18,243 female patients who gave birth at a large, diverse, university-based medical center in Chicago between January and December of 2019.
Of the patients, 57.3% of whom were non-Hispanic White, 1.5% (280) had documentation of their sexual orientation, or sexual minority status.
The results show that those identified as being in sexual minorities, including lesbian, bisexual, queer, pansexual or asexual, were more likely than were heterosexual women to be more engaged in their care – they were more likely to have attended at least one prenatal visit (20.0% vs. 13.7%; P = .002) and at least one postpartum care visit (18.6% vs. 12.8%; P = .004), and more likely to be screened for depression during postpartum care (odds ratio, 1.77; P = .002).
Sexual minority women were also significantly more likely to screen positive for depression during the postpartum period than were heterosexual women (odds ratio, 2.38; P = .03); however, all other comparisons were not significantly different.
The finding regarding postpartum depression was consistent with recent literature,indicating that the stress of being in a sexual minority may be heightened during the postpartum period, the authors noted.
Reasons for the heightened stress may include “being perceived as inadequate parents, heteronormativity in perinatal care, such as intake forms asking for information about the child’s father, and lack of familial social support due to nonacceptance of the parents’ sexual orientation,” the researchers explained.
The rate of only 1.5% of people giving birth who identified as a sexual minority was significantly lower than expected, and much lower that the 17% reported in aof women, first author Leiszle Lapping-Carr, PhD, director of the sexual and relationship health program, department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Northwestern University, Chicago, said in an interview.
“I did not expect a rate as low at 1.5%,” she said. “I anticipated it would not be as high as the 17%, but this was quite low. I think one primary reason is that women are not interested in disclosing their sexual orientation to their ob.gyns. if they don’t have to.”
Furthermore, Dr. Lapping-Carr said, “most medical systems do not have an easy way to document sexual orientation or gender identity, and even if it exists many physicians are unaware of the process.”
On a broader level, the lower rates may be indicative of a lack of acknowledgment of sexual minorities in the ob.gyn. setting, Dr. Lapping-Carr added.
“There is a heteronormative bias implicit in most obstetrics clinics, in which pregnant people are automatically gendered as women and assumed to be heterosexual, especially if they present with a male partner,” she said.
Because of those factors, even if a pregnant person discloses sexual identity, that person may request that it not be documented in the chart, she noted.
The higher rates of postpartum depression are consistent with higher rates of mental illness that are reported in general among sexual minority women, pregnant or not, including depression, anxiety, higher rates of substance abuse, stressful life events, and intimate partner violence, compared with heterosexual women, the authors noted.