The negative ideas we perpetuate about teen moms are hurting them.
In May of 2012, a study published in the journal Pediatrics revealed that girls who gave birth between the ages of 15 and 19 experienced postpartum depression (PPD) at twice the rate of older moms. That study, consisting of 6,4000 Canadian women, isn’t the only one – research published in 2014 also reported that there’s a connection between the age a person gives birth and their mental health.
The messages that we get about teen moms aren’t exactly subtle — they run the gambit of how difficult life will be and how much the hardship will be deserved. Even people who advocate for reproductive health and justice for everyone aren’t immune from internalizing ideas about young parents, and they’re certainly capable of manifesting them at the expense of the people they’re helping.
Natasha Vianna was 17 when her daughter, now 12, was born. While still in the hospital, she says, she felt herself having a panic attack. “I just gave birth to someone people had told me would ruin my life. I couldn’t explain what I was feeling to people.” Vianna began #noteenshame along with 6 other young moms in 2013 in order to push back against the stigma impacting teen moms, which, Vianna says, comes from folks with both left and right wing politics.
“We were frustrated by the media’s depiction of young moms and we wanted to change the national dialogue. All of us have coped with mental health stuff at some point. We can tell our individual stories, but it’s easy for people to just dismiss us and say, ‘Oh, that’s just her, she’s not like the others. When there’s more than one of us talking about what’s happened to all of us, we’re harder to ignore.”
“Pregnancy is stressful, expensive and challenging for every mother, and these issues are compounded for teen moms who may not have the financial, emotional, or social support that older mothers may have. They can suffer from stigma from an unintended pregnancy from their friends or classmates.” says Dr. Rebecca Teng, an OB/GYN who works with teen moms. In addition, young moms are at a higher risk for pregnancy complications, like preeclampsia and preterm birth. Teng adds that these conditions can shift the biochemical balance in one’s postpartum brain, which increases the risk of postpartum depression.
We know that there’s an immediate drop in progesterone after birth that can also contribute to PPD. While this is normal, Vianna says that the stigma of being a teen mom impacts what kind of information, if any, one might get from their doctor.
“There’s a tendency to minimize what we’re capable of doing and of understanding, so we don’t always get information about what’s common, what to expect,” explains Vianna.
Because doctors are so focused on preventing teen pregnancy, and parenting for teens is framed as a negative consequence (instead of something one might choose), teen moms are often pushed into birth control immediately after they deliver. Not only does this exacerbate the lack of agency and autonomy that teen moms already experience, but the post pregnancy hormonal changes and those that come with taking hormonal birth control.
“Diagnosis of postpartum depression in teenagers (and women in general) can be difficult because the early signs can be subtle and hidden,” says Teng. “Patients may fear the stigma of postpartum depression as they may be worried about appearing less capable of caring for their children or judgment from others in their social circles.” For Vianna, the fear of losing her child was a big reason why she didn’t tell anyone about her depression. “I was really scared to tell my doctor. Teen moms are hyper-surveilled by other adults, and I was waiting for someone to tell me that I wasn’t equipped to be a mom.”
PPD is often hard to distinguish within the context of what’s going on for new moms, considering how much stress they are already experiencing. In addition, says Teng, there’s also the issue of access to care – do you have insurance? Can you get to a psychiatrist and afford medication? Can you schedule appointments and follow ups? The systemic realities that prohibit access to treatment hit teen moms, and in particular, teen moms of color, the hardest.
Vianna is currently working with psychiatrists who are writing a report on the impact of stigma on young moms and their children. Until she got into activism, she says, she thought she was the only one coping with mental health issues. She quickly learned that every teen mom had similar stories of coping with shame and stigma, of not being able to access resources and support, and of dealing with trauma and isolation before, during, and after pregnancy. “There’s a feeling like your issues aren’t real, like they don’t deserve attention, so you minimize it, especially when people are telling you that it’s not about you anymore, it’s only about your kid.”
She urges teen moms who are coping with mental health issues to take themselves seriously. “What you’re feeling is real, and it really matters. It’s okay to take space, to put your health first. Talk about it with other people. You don’t have to do it alone. I’m still unpacking things, not just for myself, but for my daughter.”