TUESDAY, Aug. 30 (HealthDay News) -- Nearly one in 10 women in
the United States were married before the age of 18, a new study
finds, and they could face a slightly higher risk of mental illness
than other married women.
The research doesn't prove that so-called "child marriage"
causes the increased risk of mental problems, the authors noted in
the report published in the September issue of the journal
Still, the findings are enough for its lead author to call for
the end of child marriage in the United States.
"People should ask their politicians to adopt a law to ban it.
It should be avoided by families, and teenagers willing to be
married should delay marriage to adulthood," said Dr. Yann Le
Strat, a psychiatrist at Louis-Mourier Hospital of Paris in
Colombes, France, and an adjunct scientist at the Centre for
Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
The study authors analyzed the results of a 2001-02 national
survey designed to understand alcoholism and other conditions. A
total of 24,575 women took part; the researchers focused on the
18,645 who were married or had been married.
The goal of the research was to understand how child marriage
affects mental health in women, Le Strat explained. The researchers
didn't look at how it might affect men.
"Studies in India and Africa have shown that child marriage is
known to be associated with elevated risks of HIV transmission,
unwanted pregnancy [and] death from childbirth," Le Strat said.
"But surprisingly, the impact of child marriage on mental health
had never been studied."
Of the nearly 19,000 women in the U.S. study, close to 9 percent
had been married before the age of 18. They were more likely to be
black or American Indian/Alaska Native, poorer and less educated
than women who married later. They were also more likely to live in
the South and in rural areas, and much more likely to be older than
65 (of whom about 13 percent were married as children) than aged 18
to 29 (of whom 3.4 percent married as children).
It's not clear why the women in the study chose to get married
before adulthood, but pregnancy seems to have played a role. Almost
half of the women who married as children were pregnant before
adulthood, compared to just 3 percent of those who got married as
adults, the authors noted.
The researchers found that slightly more women who'd married as
children had suffered from mental disorders throughout their
lifetimes, compared those who'd married as adults -- 53 vs. 49
Specifically, major depressive disorder and nicotine dependence
were the most common disorders among those married as children.
There wasn't a big difference in terms of alcohol and illegal drug
abuse, although those women married as children were much more
likely to smoke cigarettes (the study classified tobacco addiction
as a mental illness).
The study found that a higher risk of most mental disorders was
common in women married as children. After adjusting for other
factors, the researchers found that antisocial personality disorder
was the most common disorder.
Nevertheless, it's difficult, and perhaps impossible, to know
for sure if child marriage was behind a higher rate of mental
illness, since other factors could be part of the picture.
"What we have here is only an indirect proof that child marriage
may have negative effects on mental health," Le Strat stressed.
One alternative possibility is that something about these women
could make them more likely to get married as children
and to suffer from mental illness, the researchers
One fact is clear, though, said Linda J. Waite, a professor of
sociology at the University of Chicago who studies marriage. Both
men and women who marry young are more likely than other people to
get divorced, she said, although Latino women are an exception to
Those higher divorce rates only disappear when people reach
their mid-20s, she noted.
Why are marriages at younger ages so much more fragile? "One of
the arguments is that testosterone levels in young men are too
high," Waite said, "and they're related to all sorts of behaviors
that make men bad husbands -- infidelity, abuse, difficulty getting
along with people. Another argument is that young people are still
sorting things out, getting settled and figuring out who they are.
If you marry quite young, you don't know who you're marrying and
that person will probably change."
As for the idea of limiting child marriage, Waite said that "the
issue is when women are forced or pressured to marry early," such
as in the South and in religious communities. "It's a real
For more on mental illness, visit the
U.S. National Library of Medicine.