By Shveta Suresh
Approximately 20% of all mothers suffer from postpartum-related mental illnesses, including postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis, and postpartum blues. For teenage mothers, however, this value is almost double. This is because, statistically speaking, adolescent mothers are more likely to have a weaker support system and inadequate financial means, not to mention the constant backlash they receive from society. All of these factors cause their mental states to suffer.
One of my mother’s friends (who wishes to remain anonymous, but whom we shall call Sally for now) had her first child at 16. She faced many struggles as a result of this, mainly in the form of bullying from her classmates. She told me all about how they used to call her vulgar names such as “slut” and “whore”, and how some of them even told her that they hoped she had a miscarriage. Although it has been more than thirty years since these events took place, she still had tears in her eyes while telling me about it. Sally is only one among many teen mothers who have faced harassment and whose mental well-beings have suffered because of it. During her pregnancy, Sally’s self-esteem took the biggest hit. Due to a lack of support from her community, she constantly doubted herself and wondered whether she’d be able to make a good mother. Although her family later accepted her situation and ended up becoming very encouraging, they were never there for her at the beginning. “They were so disappointed in me,” she says. “My dad even told me that I was no longer his daughter... it hurt me so much.”
As a result of a lack of assistance, teen mothers can feel unloved and unwanted, making them even more susceptible to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Preparing to be a mother is already such a tough job. When you add the stress of constant put-downs and societal pressure, their lives can become unbearable.
The Seleni Institute is an NGO situated in New York focused on the de-stigmatization of mental health, especially when it regards parents (read more about them here). According to their research, women who possess a preexisting mental disorder are three times more likely to give birth as an adolescent than their psychologically healthy counterparts. Pregnancy and motherhood only exacerbate this poor wellbeing, causing the mom to suffer even more.
Postpartum depression is a very dangerous illness by itself. By preventing the mom from forming a meaningful connection with her baby, it can deteriorate the health of both the mother and child. At its worst, it can even lead the mother to risky measures such as suicide and substance abuse.
However, there is still light at the end of the tunnel: there are many organizations and movements that are trying to fix this issue and provide more support to teen moms.
For example, Maureen Phipps, an obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN) at the Women and Infants Hospital in Rhode Island, has led a clinical trial to assess whether all the measures the hospital was taking to prevent postpartum depression in teenage mothers were working. She calls this trial Project REACH, which stands for ‘Relax, Encourage, Appreciate, Communicate, Help’. Within this program, new mothers have sessions with counsellors to talk about their goals, support systems, and the importance of communication. What the Project REACH team found was that only 12.5% of the moms who were engaged in this program developed postpartum depression, compared to 25% of other teen moms who were not enlisted in the project. Therefore, they concluded that adolescent mothers are undertreated, and would be less likely to develop postpartum-related mental illnesses if they were able to receive the support they need. The bright side to this is that it is an issue that can be fixed.
Moreover, the Seleni Institute also has a program called the Seleni Institute Teen Initiative (SITI), which provides mental health services to young mothers in hopes of bettering their future. They arrange free psychotherapy, group parenting support, and information sessions on the topic of the toll pregnancy and motherhood can take on one’s mental wellbeing.
Teenage moms have arguably one of the hardest jobs in the world. For some, it even takes years to recover from an illness like postpartum depression, and many women never feel the same after they have gone through something like that. If you are wondering what you can do to help, there are many organizations you can donate to such as the Seleni Institute or Postpartum Support International, who provide services to mothers suffering from the illness. In addition, you can spread awareness about this issue or write a letter to a government representative to ask them to implement more affordable healthcare services for teen moms. Any small step you take can make a huge difference, and can contribute to the emotional wellbeing of these hardworking parents.
Shveta Suresh is a high school student currently living in Markham, Ontario. In her free time, she adores spending time with friends and family, listening to music, reading, and baking. She is passionate about all things mental health and hopes to study clinical psychology in the future. You can reach her on Instagram @shveta.s_.