Guyonne Kalb and Ha Vu
It is well documented that outcomes for women, who give birth to their first child in their teenage years, tend to be poor. This is independent of whether education, employment, partnering or health outcomes are concerned. Less is known about the patterns of outcomes when considering the transition from short- to long-term outcomes.
To develop effective policies to support these teenage mothers, it is important to understand how the disadvantage evolves over time to target the timing of any interventions. This paper focuses on health outcomes over a lifetime and seeks to determine the role of teenage motherhood and the likely channels through which teenage motherhood may contribute to health disparities across different life stages between teenage mothers and other women.
Using the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey, we follow (former) teenage mothers and other women for up to 15 years, and examine physical and mental health in aggregate, and separately over eight separate health domains. We apply fixed effects panel regressions to analyse these ten health outcome measures controlling for a broad range of characteristics. Furthermore, we test the role of potential mediators in the difference in health outcomes for teenage mothers by adding these factors —including health behaviours, family, social support, education and economic factors— to the fixed-effects panel regressions.
Descriptive analyses show that poorer health outcomes on all domains and across all life stages are observed for teenage mothers compared to other women of the same age, even before childbirth. This suggests that teenage mothers are already at a disadvantage before having children; teenage birth is an outcome of this disadvantage, although it may also compound pre-existing disadvantage.
The fixed-effects regressions, which control for the effects of prior disadvantage, show that teenage mothers have poor mental and physical health compared to other women, which is persistent, and worsens over time. We identify a few mediating factors that partly explain the impact of teenage motherhood for mental health but not physical health. The strongest pathways for mental health are through social support, family and economic outcomes.
This suggests that addressing support and economic circumstances directly through social policy may improve mental health outcomes for teenage mothers. No mechanisms of how teenage motherhood affects physical health have been uncovered. As such, no specific policy interventions can be recommended, aside from ensuring all women have easy, non-judgmental (and affordable) access to medical care at all stages of their life to facilitate prevention, early detection, and treatment of serious health issues.