Pregnant teens battle variety of mental health conditions

In honour of pregnancy awareness week this week, the South African Society of Psychiatrists (Sasop) is highlighting the crucial role that adolescent mothers’ mental health plays in their care.

This organisation highlights the various difficulties that this susceptible group faces, noting that pregnant teenagers in sub-Saharan Africa experience mental health conditions

Teenage pregnancies are alarmingly on the rise in South Africa, despite a global decline in adolescent (15 to 19-year-old) birth rates.

Reports state that 145 of the 1,708 births in South Africa on Christmas Day 2023 alone were to teenage moms, including minors (under 16).

New Year’s Day 2023 saw 190 teenage births, including two 14-year-olds from KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

Socio-economic difficulties

Between April 2021 and March 2022, a staggering 90 000 pregnancies were recorded for girls aged 10 to 19. Over 150 000 young girls were pregnant in the 2022–2023 financial year.

Dr Jessica Stanbridge, a psychiatrist and member of Sasop, attributes this rise to socio-economic challenges, inadequate sex education, gender-based violence, and limited access to contraception.

“Teenage pregnancy implies that the pregnancy is usually unplanned. And pregnancy in very young adolescents aged 10 to 14 is evidence of statutory rape,” said Stanbridge.

“This, together with the alarming numbers that do not factor in unregistered births, miscarriages, or backstreet abortions, paints a disheartening picture.”

Stanbridge warned of the far-reaching consequences of early childbearing, affecting education, livelihoods, and health, including mental health, which impacts both the mother and the child. 

“Many pregnant teenagers drop out of school, affecting their educational and employment opportunities,” she said.

Reduced status in the community

“They face social repercussions such as reduced status in their community, significant levels of stress, peer rejection, family violence, and early marriage.

“The mental health toll on teenagers giving birth cannot be understated. Teenage pregnancies often come with a range of emotional and psychological challenges, impacting the mental wellbeing of young mothers.

“The societal stigma, coupled with the abrupt and sudden transition to parenthood, can lead to heightened stress, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.”  

During the post-partum period, regardless of age, South Africa records the highest rate of one in three women developing mental health symptoms.

Pregnant teenagers in sub-Saharan Africa experience mental health conditions up to 30% higher than their adult counterparts, persisting into adulthood.

Complicated pregnancies

Stanbridge added that women with mental illness have more complicated pregnancies, including pre-term delivery, stillbirths, and newborns with low birth weights.

“The importance of ongoing mental healthcare for both mother and child cannot be overstressed,” she explained.

“Teenagers often neglect antenatal care, leading to more complicated pregnancies and harsher disciplinary styles, developmentally impacting the child’s wellbeing and mental health.”

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