Examining longitudinal associations between self-reported depression, anxiety and stress symptoms and hair cortisol among mothers of young children


Background: Maternal mental health is critically important given its impacts on both women’s and children’s outcomes. Hair cortisol concentrations (HCC) may provide insight into physiological processes underpinning mental health. This study investigated associations between mothers’ self-reported mental health symptoms and their HCC at 1, 2 and 3 years postpartum. Methods: Longitudinal study of Australian mothers recruited for their experience of adversity in pregnancy (‘right@home’ trial, N=722). Mental health symptoms were self-reported using the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scales (DASS). Associations between DASS total and subscale scores and HCC were estimated using linear regression and generalized estimating equation (GEE) models, examining associations: at each age; across all ages (multivariate GEE); and with persistence of high symptom severity. Missing data were addressed using multiple imputation. Results: 546/722 (76%) women provided at least one hair sample (71% at 1, 61% at 2, 49% at 3 years). Associations between DASS total or subscale scores and HCC were not evident across time points. Only dichotomized high depression symptom severity was associated with higher HCC in the GEE models (β=0.12, p=0.04). There was no evidence of associations between persistence of high DASS symptom severity and HCC at 3 years. Limitations: The DASS measured self-reported symptoms for the preceding week whereas HCC captured average cortisol over three months. Associations amongst mothers experiencing adversity may not represent patterns in the general population. Conclusions: Considered in context with existing literature, these findings suggest that HCC provides limited insight into the mental health of mothers experiencing adversity across the early postpartum years.

Journal of Affective Disorders