How Can We Help Teen Mothers Avoid and Cope With Postpartum Depression?

By Rachel Walden — April 25, 2013

Although there is a fair amount of information and research available on postpartum depression in general, very little of it seems to focus specifically on the needs or care of teen mothers.

A pilot study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in March attempts to fill in this gap — and it shows some promising results.

First, the authors explain why the risks of PPD in teens are important:

PPD puts adolescent mothers and their children at risk during an already challenging time in their lives, and this hardship may be a major determinant of poor outcomes for these young mothers and their children. Untreated, depression is associated with school dropout, suicide, and substance use. Among adolescent mothers, evidence suggests that depression may prevent them from engaging in health-promoting behaviors for their infants and themselves.

The study is based on a randomized controlled trial of the REACH program (Relax, Encourage, Appreciate, Communicate, Help), which is designed to help expectant mothers develop stress management and other skills. The program was offered as structured therapy during pregnancy, followed by a postpartum “booster” session.

Participants in the therapy group used interpersonal therapy to work on effective communication skills, conflict management, improving their social support systems and building healthy relationships, and goal setting. They, as well as the control group, received a handbook of typical pregnancy and postpartum/newborn health information. A total of 106 teens age 17 or younger and without pre-existing mental health issues were randomized to the therapy or control groups.

The researchers looked for major depressive episodes within the six months after birth. Although only 12.5 percent of the REACH teens developed postpartum depression, compared with 25 percent of the control teens, the results were not statistically significant, as the study was fairly small and very few teens (19) overall developed postpartum depression. A larger study may be needed to better determine the utility of the program.

Despite a lack of clear effect, the study highlights a need for further investigation into the postpartum mental health needs of teens. As the authors explain:

Although validated treatments for adolescent depression exist and include interpersonal therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and antidepressant medication, teen mothers with mental health problems are mostly under treated. To date, only one published report of 2 small open-trial pilot studies addressed treatment for depression in pregnant adolescents. Despite the potentially high burden of depression to young women and their families, studies on the prevention of PPD in pregnant adolescents are virtually nonexistent.

Another lesson learned in this study was that teens preferred individual therapy sessions over the planned group sessions, so sessions were adjusted to be one-on-one. The researchers also took care to specifically design the REACH program to be culturally appropriate for a diverse group of racial and ethnic backgrounds.

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