What Overturning Roe v. Wade Means Psychologically for Teens Who Could Get Pregnant

Both pediatric and psychiatric organizations have condemned the overturning of Roe v. Wade, citing physical and mental health ramifications. Here, two experts weigh in on what parents of teens need to know.

Teenage girls with pregnancy test
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On Friday, June 24, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision. With a vote of 6-3, the nation's highest court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending nearly 50 years of federally protected abortion rights. And while this decision will have far-reaching effects—in many states, for example, pregnant people will not have access to fair, safe, or reasonable reproductive health—there are mental health implications, too. Frank C. Worrell, Ph.D., president of the American Psychological Association (APA), worries we are on the brink of a "psychological crisis."

"We are setting up a situation where we are deliberately pushing people into a psychological crisis," Dr. Worrell told Fortune, emphasizing that the decision will disproportionately hurt low-income individuals and people of color. "If you live in a state with a law that [has gotten rid of or] will get rid of abortion, your level of anxiety will go up."

"This ruling ignores not only precedent but science, and will exacerbate the mental health crisis America is already experiencing," Dr. Worrell added in a statement. "We are alarmed that the justices would nullify Roe despite decades of scientific research demonstrating that people who are denied abortions are more likely to experience higher levels of anxiety, lower life satisfaction, and lower self-esteem compared with those who are able to obtain abortions."

Why Teens Are Especially Impacted by the Court's Decision

Of course, pregnant people across the country will feel the effects of this decision. Roe v. Wade impacts individuals of all ages. But teens, particularly marginalized youths, are at-risk. Why? Because teens, tweens, and young adults already face many barriers. It is hard for youths to access and afford reproductive health.If they have to travel for said health care, they will face additional hurdles. Many teens don't have access to transportation, for example. This will make it extremely difficult to find and access care. They are also "vulnerable" to mental health issues—and mental health concerns.

"We know that self-harm and suicidal behavior in teens is associated with stress, uncertainty, and social pressures," says Sarah Gupta, M.D., a board-certified physician with expertise in psychiatry and neurology. Rates of non-suicidal self-injury are increased at this age. Approximately 17% of teens have admitted to self-injuring at least once in their life. Suicide is also too prevalent. It is the second leading cause of death among children aged 15 to 19, and this number increases for LGBTQIA+ and Black teens. According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQIA+ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers, and according to the AACAP, Black youth are twice as likely to die by suicide as their white counterparts.

The disparities are alarming. They are also striking and, when compared to other risk factors—like health care access—a major cause of concern.

"It's definitely possible that the overturning of Roe v. Wade will lead to an increase in suicidal behaviors in pregnant adolescents," Dr. Gupta adds. "The extra stress and uncertainty may also worsen anxiety and depression."

Reduced Access to Health Care Increases Mental Health Risks

Dr. Gupta's concerns are not unique, nor are they unfounded. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) voiced similar concerns hours after Roe v. Wade was overturned.

"Lack of abortion availability for pregnant teens with psychiatric disorders may severely impact the course of their health, including mental health and increase risk for suicide," a AACAP statement reads. "The Supreme Court's ruling, in combination with state laws criminalizing support or assistance to these youth seeking abortions can criminalize psychiatric care, impeding our ability as child and adolescent psychiatrists, to act in the best interests of our patient's overall health care needs."

The numbers don't lie, either. According to a long-term study, which followed more than 1,000 pregnant people, when individuals are denied abortions, they face increased economic hardship and—in turn—additional mental health challenges.

"It's important for folks to know that abortion does not cause mental health problems," Debra Mollen, Ph.D., a professor of counseling psychology at Texas Woman's University, who studies abortion and reproductive rights, told the APA. "What's harmful are the stigma surrounding abortion, the lack of knowledge about it, and the lack of access." The restricting and/or outright banning of abortion could also increase emotional, physical, relational, and financial stress for anyone who is pregnant or can get pregnant.

"This kind of globalized stress increases the severity of existing mental health conditions and creates vulnerabilities for new conditions to emerge," Grace Dickman, a licensed clinical social worker with her own private practice, told Verywell Mind.

Health Organizations Issue Statements of Concern

Of course, it's worth noting that other organizations have spoken out against the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stresses the importance of bodily autonomy and reproductive control (i.e. adolescents should be allowed to make their own health care decisions, particularly in regard to undesired and/or unplanned pregnancy). Timely access to said care is also extremely important.

"[June 24th's] Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade means that the once Constitutionally protected right to access an abortion is no longer guaranteed nationwide," Moira Szilagyi, president of the AAP, said in a statement. "This decision carries grave consequences for our adolescent patients, who already face many more barriers than adults in accessing comprehensive reproductive health care services and abortion care.... [it also means that] evidence-based care will be difficult or impossible to access, threatening the health and safety of our patients and jeopardizing the patient-physician relationship."

The JED Foundation echoed a similar sentiment, particularly in regard to how this decision affects teen and tween mental health. "Youth mental health is already in a state of 'crisis," according to the U.S. Surgeon General. "One in three young adults between ages 18 and 25 has experienced a mental, emotional, or behavioral health issue in the past year," a statement reads. "[And] overturning Roe v. Wade has added to the significant stressors that were already impacting their day-to-day lives, as well as their overall physical, emotional, and mental health."

"The Supreme Court's decision will be especially detrimental to marginalized groups," the foundation adds. "Black people will be disproportionately targeted, [as] they are more likely to live in states subject to abortion bans, and they are five times more likely to pursue abortions than white people (due to reasons such as difficulty accessing contraception, likelihood of being uninsured, and higher rates of both pregnancy complications and maternal death, among other reasons), according to the Washington Post. "It also disproportionately impacts LGBTQ individual."

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has yet to release a statement. They also declined to comment for this report.

What We Can Do To Help Teens

So what can people and parents do? How can teens cope with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy? According to Dr. Gupta, it is essential that pregnant adolescents get support—from friends, family, and their community.

"There are excellent resources available to help pregnant teens understand their options, including parenting, kinship care, adoption, and abortion," she says. "For reproductive health information, resources, and tools, GoodRx's Reproductive Health Center and the Planned Parenthood teen website are great places to start. The latter can help teens connect with in-person services, if needed. Confidential help is also available 24/7 by calling the the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or by texting 'HOME' to Crisis Text Line at 741741, and LGBTQIA+ teens can access additional resources through The Trevor Project."

Scarleteen is another excellent resource, says Matthew Goldenberg, Psy.D., a psychologist at the Seattle Children's Hospital Gender Clinic. "Many websites offer information for teens on mental health, sexual health, and identity such as Scarleteen," he says.

The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine also has sexual and reproductive health resources.

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