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July 27, 2009


Teen Pregnancy May Be Symptom, Not Cause, of Emotional Distress

Health Behavior News Service

It would make sense that teenage mothers have a lot of psychological stress in their lives, but a new study shows that the distress comes before the pregnancy, not because of it.

“Psychological distress does not appear to be caused by teen childbearing, nor does it cause teen childbearing, except apparently among girls from poor households,” said Stefanie Mollborn, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at the Institute of Behavioral Science of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The study, published in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, used data from two large long-term U.S. surveys that followed thousands of teen girls and women. Participants responded to items on symptoms associated with depression, such as how often they found things that did not usually bother them to be bothersome, how easily they could shake off feeling blue or whether they had trouble concentrating. The researchers did not use the term “depression,” which is a clinical diagnosis.

Only the combination of poverty and existing distress was a good predictor of teen pregnancy.

Previous studies had shown high levels of depression among teen mothers, but nationally representative studies had not examined if distress was present before the pregnancy and stresses of young motherhood.

“Psychologically distressed girls are at risk for teen childbearing and vice versa, even if the two things usually do not cause each other,” Mollborn said. “This could help educators and clinicians identify at-risk adolescents.”

Looking for symptoms of depression or distress should be part of normal health screening for all teenagers, said Diane Merritt, M.D., director of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

"Talking to teenagers about their sexuality and responsible behavior is key,” she said. Responsible behavior would include the use of birth control if the teenager were sexually active.

One of the best ways to prevent teen pregnancy is for teens to have long-term goals and good self-esteem, Merritt added.

High levels of depression have long-term negative consequences for both mothers and children, Mollborn said. The higher levels of psychological distress in women who had teenage pregnancies continued well into adulthood, she added.

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The Journal of Health and Social Behavior is a quarterly journal of the American Sociological Association.

Mollborn S, Morningstar E. Investigating the relationship between teenage childbearing and psychological distress using longitudinal evidence. J Health Social Behav 50(3), 2009.