Despite a global decline in adolescent (15-19 years) birthrates, South Africa is witnessing a distressing surge in teenage pregnancies.
During Pregnancy Awareness Week (6-10 February), the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP) emphasises the critical mental health impact on teenage mothers, shedding light on the multifaceted challenges faced by this vulnerable demographic.
In South Africa, on Christmas Day 2023 alone, 145 of the 1708 births were to teenage mothers, and New Year's Day recorded 190 teenage births, including two 14-year-olds from KwaZulu Natal and Eastern Cape provinces.
Dr Jessica Stanbridge, a psychiatrist and member of SASOP, attributes this rise to socio-economic difficulties, inadequate sex education, gender-based violence, and limited access to contraception.
“Teenage pregnancy implies that the pregnancy is usually unplanned and pregnancy in very young adolescents aged 10-14 is evidence of statutory rape. This together with the alarming numbers that do not factor in unregistered births, miscarriages or backstreet abortions, paints a disheartening picture,” says Dr Stanbridge.
Dr Stanbridge warns of the far-reaching consequences of early childbearing, affecting education, livelihoods, and health, including mental health impacting both mother and child.
“Many pregnant teenagers drop out of school, affecting their educational and employment opportunities, and face social repercussions such as reduced status in their community, significant levels of stress, peer rejection, family violence, and early marriage.”
“The mental health toll on teenagers giving birth cannot be understated. Teenage pregnancies often come with a range of emotional and psychological challenges, impacting the mental well-being of young mothers. The societal stigma, coupled with the abrupt and sudden transition to parenthood, can lead to heightened stress, anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.”
During the postpartum period, regardless of age, South Africa records the highest rate of 1 in 3 women developing mental health symptoms. Pregnant teenagers in Sub-Saharan Africa experience mental health conditions up to 30% higher than their adult counterparts, persisting into adulthood.
Dr Stanbridge says women with mental illness have more complicated pregnancies, including pre-term delivery, stillbirths and newborns with low birth weights.
“The importance of ongoing mental health care for both mother and child cannot be overstressed. Teenagers often neglect ante-natal care, leading to more complicated pregnancies and harsher disciplinary styles, developmentally impacting the child’s well-being and mental health.”
Symptoms of mental health conditions to look out for include, but are not limited to:
Difficulty attaching to baby
Difficulty caring for infant
Thinking of harming oneself or the baby
Difficulty enjoying activities
“It is crucial to recognise and address any mental health concerns to ensure the holistic well-being of both young mothers and their newborns,” Dr Stanbridge says.
“The list of conditions and symptoms are vast. The main aim is to know that mental health conditions are common and that seeking professional support early is important. Supporting parental intervention is critical for this vulnerable population, with an emphasis on improved intergenerational mental health.”
To support a teenager, yourself or a family member:
speak to your GP, or
contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) on 0800 12 13 14, or send an SMS to 32312 and a counsellor will call you back.