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Primary Sources: What's It Like to Be Young, Homeless and Pregnant? A New Study Sheds Light

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Photograph of a young woman.

Pregnancy and Mental Health of Young Homeless Women” (abstract). American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 81, No. 2, April 2011.

What it’s about: This study explores the experiences and mental health of homeless young women who are pregnant or have children. The researchers looked at 222 homeless 16- to 19-year-old girls who were sexually active at the beginning of the three-year study. Data came from from the Midwest Longitudinal Study of Homeless Adolescents.

Why read it: We know that homeless young women in the United States are much more likely to become pregnant than their peers. But few studies have looked at mental health or other stresses that negatively affect young homeless mothers. A good understanding of what homeless young moms go through may help youth workers tailor their services.

Biggest takeaways for youth workers: Almost half of the young women were pregnant when the study started. Half of the women who gave birth during the study reported caring for their children consistently over time. One in five never saw her children.

Many of the young mothers struggled with poor mental health, ranging from major depression to posttraumatic stress disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and chronic drug abuse. The authors write that these mental health problems can make it hard for young mothers to parent their children well. At the same time, the physical and mental stresses of pregnancy and the pressures of caring for young children can make it even more difficult for young women to escape homelessness.

The authors suggest that programs can help young homeless moms by addressing their mental health issues. Programs should also provide family planning and sexual health care, the authors say. For example, youth-serving organizations might include home pregnancy tests in survival kits given to homeless youth, or make pregnancy tests available at drop-in centers and shelters free of charge.

Additional references: The Family and Youth Services Bureau’s Maternity Group Homes for Pregnant and Parenting Youth help young people, ages 16 to 21, learn parenting skills as well as child development, family budgeting, health and nutrition, and other skills to promote their long-term independence and ensure the well-being of their children. FYSB’s Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Programs work to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases among homeless, foster, rural and minority youth.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of these and other publications.)

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