The first study of its kind looking at the link between personality disorders and stress in pregnancy found children were at risk if their mothers experienced “any level of stress” while pregnant.
Children had more than three times the risk of developing a personality disorder by age 30 if their mother experienced any level of stress or moderate stress while pregnant, when compared to children whose mothers had no stress.
And they had almost 10 times the risk if their mother suffered severe maternal stress.
In total, 3,626 women from the Helsinki area of Finland were included in the study. They typically answered six questionnaires relating to their mental health during pregnancy, with detailed questions on their stress levels. From the babies born, 40 developed a diagnosed personality disorder.
The findings of the study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, held true even when a range of other factors – such as whether a mother smoked, felt depressed or had a prior history of mental illness – were taken into account.
The authors suggested that the developing brains of children could be affected by stress in pregnancy.
However, the study findings have been criticised by mental health professionals. Dr Lucy Johnstone, a clinical psychologist and author of A Straight Talking Introduction to Psychiatric Diagnosis, said it’s important to be aware that personality disorder is a “highly controversial label, with no evidence to support it – as admitted even by the clinicians who draw up the diagnostic manuals.”
“It’s hard to see how stress can increase the likelihood of an invented condition,” said Dr Johnstone. “More seriously, this is an appalling extra burden of worry to lay on mothers, and does nothing to reduce the fear and anxiety associated with this most stigmatising of diagnoses.”
One in 20 people in the UK are thought to have a personality disorder.
Psychiatrists tend to use a system of diagnosis which identifies 10 types of personality disorder, which include paranoid, schizoid, borderline and obsessive compulsive, according to the mental health charity Mind.
Commenting on the study, Dr Trudi Seneviratne, chairwoman of the perinatal faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Pregnancy can be a stressful time and this study shows the importance of ensuring mums-to-be have access to the mental health support they need.
“NHS England has dramatically improved access to perinatal mental health services in recent times and these findings show how important it is for NHSE to continue investing in this area.
“The study does not account for important factors that affect stress and child development – such as financial situation, parenting style and sexual trauma – which we know contribute to the development of severe mental illness, including personality disorders.”
Ross Brannigan, lead author from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, said while the study highlights the importance of providing mental health and stress support to both pregnant women and families during the antenatal and postnatal period, more research is necessary to prove a causal relationship.
For information and support:
Mind: A mental health charity there to make sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone. Call: 0300 123 3393.
Pandas Foundation: A charity to support and advise any parent who is experiencing a perinatal mental illness. Call: 0843 28 98 401.
Mothers for Mothers: A postnatal depression support group with information and peer advice. Call: 0117 975 6006.
PNI: A website run by women who have suffered from postnatal illnesses to share personal experiences and offer support.