Marriage before the age of 18 years, often termed child marriage, increases a woman’s chance of developing a psychiatric condition in her lifetime and also increases the likelihood she will receive care for such a disorder, according to a study published today in the journal Pediatrics.
Child marriage is often associated with developing countries where prevalence rates of 40% to 50% are not uncommon and child brides may face life-threatening health issues such as serious obstetric complications, including fistula. But marriage of adolescent girls also remains a persistent issue in the United States and other industrialized countries.
In the new study, the researchers found that the prevalence of marriage before the age of 18 years among US women was 8.9% based on a subset of data on about 24 000 women included in the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, a face-to-face survey of more than 40 000 US adults conducted between 2001 and 2002 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Nearly half of the women who married before their 18th birthday had done so by the age of 16 years and 1 in 9 were married at the age of 14 years. Previous research has linked such early marriages to a higher risk of HIV or other sexually transmitted infections, cervical cancer, unintended pregnancy, maternal death during childbirth, and abortion; early marriage also is associated with malnutrition among offspring. Now scientists have documented that such unions also lead to poorer long-term mental health outcomes.
More than half (53%) of the women who married before the age of 18 years reported having had a mental disorder such as depression compared with 49% of the women who married later. Former child brides also were substantially more likely to have a current mental health disorder (about 36% vs nearly 28%) such as specific phobias. Nicotine dependence was also associated with child marriage. Mental health effects persisted even when the scientists adjusted for sociodemographic variables and the number of children a woman had. Additionally, former young brides were more likely to seek mental health care.
The authors concluded that more mental health support is needed for women who married early.