Pregnant, Single, and Mentally Distressed

Public-health officials tirelessly encourage pregnant women to safeguard the future health of their child by receiving prenatal care. A new British study, however, indicates that one of the most important types of prenatal care may come not in a medical clinic but rather in a wedding chapel. This study clearly shows that pregnancy is far less psychologically distressing for married women than it is for unmarried peers. And medical authorities realize that maternal medical distress during pregnancy portends a hard life for the child.

Conducted by researchers at the University of York and the Bradford Institute for Health Research, this new study examines data collected between 2007 and 2010 from 12,453 pregnant women living in an economically depressed urban environment to determine the socio-demographic predictors of mental distress during pregnancy.

In their simple bivariate analysis, the researchers identify a number of statistical correlates—including maternal age, employment status, and migration status—of impaired mental health during pregnancy. However, after using a more sophisticated statistical model, the researchers conclude that “only not being married, struggling financially, not being up to date with bills and having a larger household size persisted independently as risk factors after full adjustment.”  In this full statistical model, the risk of poor mental health during pregnancy ran significantly higher among women who were cohabiting and among women living without a partner than among married women (Odds Ratios of 1.19 and 1.46 respectively).

The researchers acknowledge that the psychological significance of marital status apparently does vary from ethnic group to ethnic group. Still, their statistical analysis indicates that marital status is one of the “factors [that] persisted [as a predictor of mental health] after adjustment for ethnicity, so indicating the general importance of these factors at a population level.”

In interpreting their findings, the researchers understandably express concerns that go beyond the immediate interests of the pregnant mothers. “Antenatal depression and anxiety,” the British scholars point out, “can disrupt foetal developmental processes” and are statistical predictors of “postnatal maternal distress and children’s poor functioning and their social, emotional and cognitive development.”

Though hardly surprising, the evidence that poor mental health is often part of pregnancies outside of wedlock comes as anything but good news—in Britain or in the United States. For on both sides of the Atlantic, such pregnancies have become distressingly common. Children with no control over their circumstances will pay a lamentably high price for this development.

(Stephanie L. Prady et al., “Psychological Distress during Pregnancy in a Multi-Ethnic Community: Findings from the Born in Bradford Cohort Study,” PLOS One 8.4 [2013]: e60693, Web.)