Child brides more often face psychiatric disorders than women who marry after they turn 18, researchers have found.
Their work is the first to try to gauge the mental toll of child marriage, which has already been tied to several health problems, such as pregnancy complications and an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections.
So far, most research has focused on child marriages in low- and middle-income nations in Africa and Asia, where the practice is often rampant.
But according to the new report, published online in Paediatrics, the US also has its fair share of underage brides. Based on a government survey, it estimates that as many as 9% of American women take their vows as kids.
Child marriage declining
About 9.4 million women were married at 16 or younger, and 1.7 million were no older than 15.
All but one US state require couples to be at least 18 years old to be married. With parental consent, however, marriage age is only 16 in most states, and under some circumstances may be as low as 15 in Hawaii and Missouri.
Blacks and Native Americans were more likely to be child brides than whites, Dr Yann Le Strat of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris, and colleagues report.
Although the rate of child marriage seems to be on the decline, they say, "Support for psychiatric vulnerabilities of women married as children is required."
Brides show signs of psychiatric disorders
The researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with nearly 25,000 women. They found that 53% of those who had been child brides had some psychiatric disorder, such as depression or anxiety. In women who married as adults, that figure was 49%.
Former child brides were also more likely to be diagnosed with nicotine dependence and anti-social personality disorder.
The French team cautions against drawing causal conclusions based on the data. Yet most women had been married before they developed mental problems, the researchers note, and the findings couldn't be entirely chalked up to differences in household incomes, education and other socio-demographic factors.
(Reuters Health, August 2011)