Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Mental Illness as a Barrier to Marriage among Unmarried Mothers

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Mental Illness as a Barrier to Marriage among Unmarried Mothers

Article excerpt

This study explores how mental illness shapes transitions to marriage among unwed mothers using augmented data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study (N = 2,351). We estimate proportional hazard models to assess the effects of mental illness on the likelihood of marriage over a 5-year period following a nonmarital birth. Diagnosed mental illness was obtained from the survey respondents' prenatal medical records. We find that mothers with mental illness are about two thirds as likely as mothers without mental illness to marry, even after controlling for demographic characteristics, and that human capital, relationship quality, partner selection, and substance abuse appear to explain only a small proportion of the effect of mental illness on marriage.

Key Words: depression, marriage, mental health.

Nonmarital childbearing has increased dramatically in the United States over the past 50 years, with over one third of births today occurring outside of marriage. The rates among poor and minority parents are particularly high. Although many unmarried mothers eventually marry, they do so at a slow rate (Graefe & Lichter, 2002). Concerns about the consequences of this demographic change for children, families, and society have fueled extensive research on determinants of marriage among low-income couples. The predominant focus has been on economic factors such as employment and education. A potential determinant that has been relatively unexplored in this context is mental health, despite evidence that unmarried parents have high rates of mental illness (DeKlyen, Brooks-Gunn, McLanahan, & Knab, 2006; Teitler, Reichman, & Nepomnyaschy, 2004) and that there are documented links between mental health and marriage. Most research on mental health and marriage has focused on the effects of marriage on mental health (see Gove, Hughes, & Style, 1983) or the effects of mental illness on relationship quality (see Larson & Holman, 1994) or divorce (see Wade & Pevalin, 2004), but some studies have examined the effects of mental illness on marriage-the focus of this paper.

Stevens (1969) used panel data on women admitted to a London mental hospital and compared that group to the general population, both pre- and postadmission. She found that schizophrenia decreased the likelihood of being married at the time of hospitalization and of subsequently marrying, but that affective disorders had no association with current or subsequent marriage. Rushing (1979), using cross-sectional data from a Tennessee hospital, found that schizophrenia was negatively associated with being married at the time of hospitalization, particularly for males. Recently, Agerbo, Byrne, Eaton, and Mortensen (2004), using Danish registry data, found that schizophrenia decreased the likelihood that individuals (women or men) entered marital unions over a 25-year period. Studying schizophrenia, although it is a severe disorder and relatively rare, is useful for assessing the direction of causality because it is less likely to be caused by social circumstances than many other mental illnesses, including depression (Dohrenwend et al., 1992). But the effects cannot necessarily be generalized to other mental illnesses.

Bartel and Taubman (1986), using panel data on veterans, examined the effects of psychoses (e.g., schizophrenia), neuroses (e.g., mood disorders), and other mental illnesses on the likelihood of marriage. They found that neuroses that were diagnosed when the individual was young reduced the likelihood of marriage, but that recent diagnoses did not. They found no associations for psychoses or other mental illnesses. Simon (2002) found no evidence that risk for depression, as measured by the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale, affects transitions to marriage, and Lamb, Lee, and DeMaris (2003) found no evidence that it affects transitions to marriage among individuals who have never cohabited. …

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