Early childhood trauma and IPV linked
The Sector > Workforce > Advocacy > Monash study links early childhood trauma and intimate partner violence

Monash study links early childhood trauma and intimate partner violence

by Freya Lucas

May 29, 2024

Early childhood trauma and depressive symptoms in pregnancy and the first years of a baby’s life may be red flags for intimate partner violence, a study from Monash University has found.


Researchers outlined empirical evidence about the increased risk of mental health disorders for pregnant women and new mothers who experience intimate family violence, suggesting that screening for both depression and childhood trauma in crucial antenatal and postnatal periods could flag women at risk of developing depression, anxiety and PTSD.


Led by Professor Megan Galbally and published in Archives of Women’s Mental Health Aims, the study compared the prevalence of emotional and physical intimate partner violence (IPV) across pregnancy and the first year postpartum in those with and without clinical depression.


Using participants from the  Mercy Pregnancy and Emotional Wellbeing Study, a cohort study with data collected across pregnancy until 12 months postpartum, researchers looked at the data of over 500 pregnant women, finding that women experiencing IPV across the perinatal period were significantly more likely to score highly for depressive symptoms. A history of childhood trauma and current additional stressful life events were also significantly associated with reporting current IPV in the perinatal period.


In previous studies, IPV has been associated with poorer mental health in the perinatal period (in pregnancy and across the first year postpartum), and this has included depressive and anxiety symptoms. However, according to Professor Galbally, there have been few studies that used clinical diagnostic measures to examine clinical depression. 


“Because the perinatal period is a time when women attend both their doctor and maternal and child health services, it is a time when women can also be potentially screened for both depression as well as IPV,” she said.


“Within many maternity services, there is now routine screening for perinatal depression and/or IPV. However, screening for IPV and depression is frequently undertaken separately, resulting in siloed pathways for care and support.”


In addition to the women in the study being clinically assessed for depression, they completed the Stressful Life Events Questionnaire to assess the incidence of both common and pregnancy-specific life stressors, including major illness or injury, relationship change, employment change and unemployment, and financial strain.


This study revealed:


  • There was an association between physical intimate partner violence and depressive disorders in early pregnancy.
  • Women experiencing IPV had higher depressive symptoms across the perinatal period, as well as higher stressful events.
  • Those with a history of moderate to severe childhood trauma were more likely to experience both emotional and physical IPV, and this was more prominent after birth.


According to Professor Galbally, these findings “raise the question about whether screening measures that include early childhood trauma experiences such as the Antenatal Risk Questionnaire recommended in National Perinatal Mental Health Guideline but less commonly used should now be routinely asked within maternity care,” she said.


“And furthermore, whether women might find it easier to disclose childhood trauma than current IPV. Given the importance of pregnancy and the postpartum as a time of social and psychological role transition, as well as the development of the early parenting relationship, understanding the unique and specific support needs for these women is critical.”


Access the study here. 

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