One of the first studies to look at child marriage and mental health has found that American women who married before age 18 are at increased risk of psychological problems. According to the Huffington Post, a study of thousands of women found that marriage before the age of 18 was linked with a greater risk of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
Women who married before 18 were also more likely to become addicted to drugs, alcohol, or smoking. This was true even when researchers controlled for socioeconomic factors and the presence of children. They also note that although their research doesn’t prove child marriage causes psychiatric problems, “child marriage generally occurred before the disorders. Moreover, these associations were still significant in an analysis of psychiatric disorders with an age at onset later than the age at first marriage; therefore, the ordering of child marriage before mental disorders can be assumed.” That is, it’s not just that women with pre-existing mental conditions were more likely to marry in adolescence.
Since an estimated 6% of American women (and a full 8.9% of the population of this particular study) get married before 18, the link between very early marriage and mental distress affects a lot of people. Says study author Dr. Yann Le Strat, “With a 41 percent increased risk of mental disorder, child marriage should be considered a major psychological trauma.” The study didn’t determine the cause of this trauma, but Le Strat speculates,
My opinion is that being married is usually something wonderful for an adult who makes this important choice. Being married as a child — even in the U.S. — is probably associated with familial pressure [and] sexual coercion by the husband, as it has been described in developing countries. These women require more attention from mental health care.
Le Strat and his team didn’t take into account the distinction between forced and voluntarily chosen marriage, so it’s possible that the ill effects researchers found are more related to coercion than to age. The study authors acknowledge the need for more research — it’s too early to say that all child marriage causes problems later in life. However, their findings to indicate that women who got married very young might benefit from additional psychological screening, and that parents or other caregivers of teens who express plans to marry before their 18th birthdays might want to take steps to shield them from coercion and make sure they’re really making the decision for themselves.
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