In cultures throughout the world, women are two times more likely to suffer from depression in their lifetime compared to men. Depressive episodes triggered by reproductive events, including the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, infertility, the postpartum period, and the menopause transition, likely account for an important proportion of this increased risk. The Women’s Mental Health Research Unit aims to inform the prediction, prevention, and treatment of depression across the female lifespan as it relates to reproductive events, examining the ways in which biological factors (e.g. hormones) can interact with psychosocial factors (e.g. life stress) to influence women’s mood.
Within Saskatchewan, we play a unique role: unlike most provinces throughout Canada, Saskatchewan does not have any clinics specializing in women’s mental health issues, leaving its women and care providers without adequate education. The long-term goal of the Women’s Mental Health Research Unit is to remedy this gap by conducting research which can directly inform clinical practices in assessment and treatment of women’s reproductive mood disorders throughout the province.
Below are some examples of the exciting research that is currently ongoing:
In the years leading up to menopause – known as the menopause transition – women experience a 2-4 fold increased risk of developing depression. Our research suggests that the hormonal environment of the menopause transition may contribute to this increased risk by sensitising women to stress, making them more vulnerable to depressed mood when they encounter stressful life events. Psychological interventions aimed at reducing stress sensitivity may therefore benefit this population. Funded by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, the Mindful Menopause Project aims to test the efficacy of an intervention called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an 8-week group program which combines yoga and meditation techniques, in reducing the risk of depression in the menopause transition.
Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and a risk factor for other diseases. Women have a significantly higher risk for experiencing depression, and the fluctuation of reproductive hormones throughout a women’s reproductive life cycle may play a role in this increased risk. In our research, we hope to better understand how changes in estrogen impact mood, and how this relationship may be affected by other physiological and psychological factors including stress and reproductive stage. Currently, the HERS study is in progress, which is investigating the impact of estrogen on mood and behaviour in reproductive-aged women. We are also in the process of analyzing results from the recently-completed FEMM study, which examined the relationship between estrogen and depressive symptoms throughout the menopause transition.
As many as 50% of women report cognitive problems such as forgetfulness and poor concentration in the years leading up to menopause, otherwise known as the menopause transition (or ‘perimenopause’). Although it has been proposed that the hormonal changes associated with the menopause transition may contribute, very little research has been devoted to studying cognitive deficits during this transition period. Our research aims to improve our understanding of both the nature and hormonal causes of perimenopausal cognitive deficits.
One in six Canadian couples struggle with infertility. Though the underlying cause of infertility is equally likely to lie with the man or the woman, research suggests that the process of trying to conceive tends to be more physically and emotionally difficult for women. Unfortunately, currently available psychological interventions aimed at reducing distress, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, have been shown to be only minimally effective in this population. We are therefore aiming to improve our understanding of the challenges that women experience in their attempts to conceive and to develop a more effective, more tailored treatment.