Teen pregnancy has large impact on mental health

7 Oct 2013 - 13:15

Shawco clinic in the 50's
While teenage pregnancy in South Africa is often painted with a single brush-stroke - disruption to the education of female learners - it has many other negative consequences that are not often explored in the mainstream media. One of these is the effect of such a pregnancy on the mental health of the teenager. Research has shown that teens are twice as likely to suffer from postnatal depression as women who have their babies at a later stage of life.

According to Simone Honikman, the director of the Perinatal Mental Health Project (PMHP), an initiative based at UCT, pregnant teenagers are doubly at risk of mental health disorders before and after the birth. Furthermore, mental disorders that appear in adolescence are more likely to persist throughout adulthood. Teen mothers are also twice as likely to fall pregnant again. 49% of adolescent mothers fall pregnant within two years of their initial pregnancy. The likelihood of a subsequent teenage pregnancy nearly doubles when the young mother is depressed.

The PMHP advocates for, and facilitates, the incorporation of mental health care into maternity care, as pregnant teenagers are particularly vulnerable to coercive and abusive relationships, physical or sexual abuse, and high-risk sexual behaviour. On a more positive note, the research also shows that teen pregnancies have dropped since the 1980s, and that teen moms who return to school are highly motivated to complete their studies.

Studies by UCT's Southern African Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) have shown that teen childbearing has decreased from 30% in 1984 to 23% in 2008. This indicates that the country has one of the lowest teenage pregnancy levels in Southern Africa. SALDRU's findings have been supported by similar studies undertaken by both governmental and non-governmental agencies.

Impact on education

In South Africa, approximately one third of teenage mothers return to school. However, it is not always the pregnancy that leads young mothers to curtail their schooling. The 2011 South African General Household Survey found that among 7- to 24-year-olds who were not attending school, pregnancy was the reason in 2,3% of the cases - compared to lack of funds accounting for 35,9% of the cases of individuals abandoning their studies.

Of those girls who return to school, only 34% complete matric. Furthermore, SALDRU found on average that "Teen mothers [compared to non-mothers] lag two-thirds of a year behind their peers; are 25 percentage points more likely to drop out of high school; and are 20 percentage points less likely to matriculate".

Studies all agree that family support, most specifically from the teenager's mother, largely determines whether a teenager returns to school after the birth of her child.