Report finds behavioral health conditions to be leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths in Washington


Shane Ersland


A new Washington State Department of Health (DOH) report found that behavioral health conditions, including suicides and overdoses, are the leading causes of pregnancy-related deaths in the state.


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The DOH released its 2023 Maternal Mortality Review Report on Tuesday. The report is based on reviews conducted by the DOH’s Maternity Mortality Review Panel (MMRP), and is published every three years as a legislative requirement. The MMRP reviews pregnancy-associated deaths from any cause during or within one year of pregnancy, and determines which were pregnancy-related deaths due to a pregnancy complication, a chain of events initiated by pregnancy, or the aggravation of unrelated conditions caused by the psychological effects of pregnancy. 

The 2023 report examines cumulative data from 2014-2020, and includes policy and funding recommendations from 2017-2020.

The MMRP found that 224 pregnant women died  from 2014-2020, and classified 97 as pregnancy-related. There were 15.9 pregnancy-related deaths per 100,000 live births from 2014-2020 in the state, which was lower than the US rate of 18.6 in that timeframe, according to the report.

The leading underlying causes of pregnancy-related deaths were behavioral health conditions (32%), predominantly by suicide and overdose. Other common causes were hemorrhage (12%) and infection (9%).

The MMRP found that 80% of pregnancy-related deaths were preventable, meaning that there was at least some chance of the death being averted if a clinical or social factor that contributed to the death had been different.

The report also found that the pregnancy-related mortality rate was greater for individuals over the age of 30. American Indian and Alaska Native people experienced higher maternal mortality rates than any other race. 

Due to inequities, discrimination, and socioeconomic factors, some communities experience disproportionately high rates of maternal mortality, according to the report. As behavioral health conditions accounted for one-third of the pregnancy-related deaths, the need for expanded access to mental health services, substance abuse treatment, screenings, and treatment for pregnant and parenting people is crucial to improving maternal mortality rates, according to the report.

The state legislature is currently considering Senate Bill 5580, which aims to improve maternal health outcomes. SB 5580 is sponsored by Sen. Ron Muzzall (R-Oak Harbor), and was passed by the Senate Committee on Ways and Means on Feb. 23rd. It would need to be passed by the House and signed by the governor to become law.