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Teen pregnancy rates highest for girls with serious mental illness, study

Pregnancy can be unexpected.

Teens with serious mental health issues are more likely to become pregnant. (Shutterstock)

The most recent data available from the Department of Health and Human Services indicates teen births are on the decline; numbers, however, are still disconcertingly high, with previous disparities noted among teens based on ethnicity. Hispanic teens and African American teens still represent a disproportionate amount of teen pregnancies in the U.S., but a new study suggests there may be another group –one not defined by race– that has the highest rates of all: teen girls with serious mental illness.

According to research published in the journal Pediatrics, teens with serious mental illness are are much more likely to become pregnant, and they are also less likely to show a significant decline in teen pregnancy rates as a whole, compared to other groups previously investigated. And while the study focused on teenage girls in Canada, experts say the pattern is likely similar in the United States.

“We’re doing a good job overall of preventing pregnancy in teenagers, but we need to attend to the fact that girls with major mental health issues are not having the decrease in pregnancy rate that we expect from other girls,” Dr. Simone Vigod, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto said, reported by HealthDay News. “How can we do a better job?”

In the research, experts tracked more than 300,000 teenage girls and found birth rate for the girls diagnosed with major mental illness was 45 per 1,000, compared with 15 per 1,000 among the other girls. What’s more, birth rates over the decade declined by 22 percent among the other girls compared with a decrease of only 14 percent for those diagnosed with mental illness.

The research is being applauded by other specialists who indicate the data suggests a new way to combat teen pregnancy.

Now that teens with serious mental illness have been identified as a high-risk group, doctors, parents and other care providers can make targeted efforts to reduce the birth rate among these teens.

Therapy can help treat depression.

Speaking with teens during mental health consultations may help increase safe sex awareness. (Shutterstock)

The findings may also have an implication when it comes to addressing teen pregnancy among Hispanics; birth rates in this group are also down, but Hispanic girls are still two-and-a-half times more likely to be pregnant during the ages of 15 to 19 than non-Hispanic white teenagers.

While much of this has to do with lack of access to birth control, desired family size and economic conditions, Hispanic teens –particularly girls– suffer disproportionately from depression and suicidal fantasies.

While the research from Canadian experts did not focus on a cause-and-effect relationship between mental illness and teen pregnancy, the study is the first to take a closer look at how mental illness may affect an individual regarding pregnancy and indicates the area warrants more investigation.

“There are a number of possible reasons for a relationship between mental illness and teenage pregnancy,” Jaimee Heffner, a staff scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said.

“For example, adolescents with bipolar disorder who are experiencing a manic episode are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors. It is also possible that mental illness and pregnancy share common risk factors, such as childhood sexual abuse. Adolescents with mental illness are also more likely to abuse substances, which increases the likelihood of risky sexual behavior.”

Depending on the cause of a serious mental illness, experts state young girls present themselves in different ways, and in a sexual situation they may be less inclined to practice safe sex.

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