Depression and Teenage Pregnancy
Research suggests that childbearing does not necessarily cause psychological distress among teenagers. Dr. Stefanie Mollborn of the University of Colorado and her team investigated stress and depression using a large group of teenage girls and adult women.
In the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, they explain that teenage mothers’ high depression rates have received “considerable research attention” in small studies, but a larger study of adolescent childbearing and depression was needed.
So they used figures from two large long-term surveys, the U.S. National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort. The participants completed questionnaires to measure depression, although the term “depression” was avoided. Questions covered areas such as how often the participants found things that did not usually bother them to be bothersome, how easily they could shake off feeling blue, and whether they had trouble concentrating.
Analysis showed that teenage mothers had higher levels of depression than other teenagers or adult mothers, but the experience of teenage childbearing did not appear to be the cause. “Rather, teenage mothers’ depression levels were already higher than their peers’ before they became pregnant, and they remained higher after childbearing and into early and middle adulthood,” the researchers report.
But the results did suggest that the combination of poverty and existing distress was a good predictor of teen pregnancy. “In this group, depression markedly increases the probability of becoming a teenage mother,” they report. However, for the majority of teenage girls, the link between depression and subsequent teenage pregnancy is “spurious,” they believe.
Dr. Mollborn commented, “Psychologically distressed girls are at risk for teen childbearing, even if the two things usually do not cause each other. This could help educators and clinicians identify at-risk adolescents.”
Dr. Diane Merritt of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis says that screening for symptoms of depression or distress should be part of normal health screening for all teenagers. “Talking to teenagers about their sexuality and responsible behavior (such as birth control) is key,” she commented, adding that having long-term goals and good self-esteem are among the best ways to prevent teen pregnancy.
Teenage childbearing may be “a positive adaptive mechanism for humans raised in a hostile environment,” suggests Dr. Julie Quinlivan of the University of Melbourne, Australia. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, she believes, because “life history theory suggests that in risky and uncertain environments the optimal reproductive strategy is to reproduce early in order to maximize the probability of leaving any descendents at all.”