THURSDAY, Sept. 28, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Unmarried parents are more likely to report mental-health problems than married moms and dads, a new study finds.
The study also suggests that children of unmarried parents may be at higher risk of developing similar mental and behavioral issues, the researchers said.
However, they were quick to add that important distinctions exist within the category of "unmarried parents."
"Being unmarried parent is not a homogenous state," said study lead author Michelle DeKlyen, a research scholar at Princeton University's Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, in New Jersey. "It might make a difference if children are living with the biological parents or if you have little or no contact."
Marriage itself does not exist in a vacuum, another expert added. "The article really lends support to the idea that you need to take a comprehensive and broad and holistic view about child and family mental health," said Robin Goodman, a clinical psychologist and art therapist in New York City."
The findings, published in the October issue of the American Journal of Public Health, may have some bearing on recent government initiatives that seek to boost marriage among parents who haven't wed.
The findings are also significant because the U.S. rate of childbearing outside of marriage -- especially among people with limited education -- has increased dramatically over the past 40 years. In 2000, one out of three births was to unmarried mothers, according to federal statistics. What's more, 70 percent of births to black parents, and 43 percent of Hispanic births, occurred outside of marriage. Non-marital childbearing is associated with low socioeconomic status, a known risk factor for mental-health problems.
Previous research has pointed to the mental benefits of marriage.
"When people can establish a secure and long-lasting intimate relationship, everything tends to be better for everybody," said Barry Ginsberg, a child and family psychologist and director of the Center of Relationship Enhancement in Doylestown, Penn. "When you get married, you have a social acknowledgement of your relationship and therefore you get more benefit, you're accepted, you're liable to be seen as one who can get along better, may be seen as a better employee."
In addition, being married brings the resources of two families together, which enhances security, Ginsberg added.
However, experts know less about never-married parents because most prior research has not distinguished between different types of never-married parents.
One recent estimate indicates that about half of unmarried parents are cohabiting at the time of the birth of their child, 30 percent are in a romantic relationship with their partner and 20 percent are not in a romantic relationship.
In this new study, the researchers looked at data on a group of almost 5,000 births (both marital and non-marital) in major U.S. cities. The data included interviews with mothers and fathers, as well as assessments of anxiety, depression, heavy drinking, illicit drug use, incarceration and domestic abuse.
Four types of unmarried relationships were defined: Cohabiting, non-cohabiting, romantic, and nonromantic.
In general, unmarried parents reported more mental-health and behavioral problems than married parents.
But there were considerable differences within the group of single parents that had not previously been documented.
For instance, single parents whose relationships ended before the birth of the child reported more problems than other unmarried parents. And parents who were currently not cohabiting or romantically involved reported the most mental-health problems.
Unmarried fathers who lived with their partners were more than twice as likely than married fathers to have been in jail; nonromantic fathers were more than three times as likely as married fathers to have been in jail.
Unmarried fathers who were still romantically linked to the mother of their child were more likely to have experienced a major episode of depression compared to married fathers. Unmarried, nonromantic dads experienced the highest rates of depression and anxiety, the study found.
Nonromantic fathers were the most likely to have been violent, and married fathers the least likely. Partner violence was twice as high among romantically linked but unmarried couples as among married couples.
The findings suggest that "we have to screen carefully to make sure we're not putting moms and kids in dangers, that families are not encouraged to stay together until domestic violence is addressed," DeKlyen said.
The study did not show any cause-and-effect relationship, however. "There's a physiological, biological, genetic component to things like anxiety and depression," Goodman said. "There's a whole system in terms of the individual and how they're wired, as well as the actual environment."
Regardless of what roles nature and nurture play in the process, the data regarding incarcerated fathers was particularly troubling, experts said. The number of people in prison has increased dramatically since 1980, due to changes in sentencing policies. Ex-offenders have trouble finding steady employment, and being in prison undermines the skills people need to stay in healthy relationships.
"Both moms and dads say that the most important factor in a stable marriage is having a dad who is stably employed," DeKlyen said. "The whole marriage initiative is running up directly against incarceration policies."
Also troubling are the findings on depression.
"We know that parents who abuse alcohol or drugs or are violent are a risk for children. Maybe somewhat insidious and less well-known to the general public is the potential damage when either mothers or fathers suffer from depression, which is a more common problem," DeKlyen said.
"Because we have so many more unmarried parents, we should want to address parents' mental-health needs if we are concerned about the well being of children," she added. "This is a wake-up call. This is a big group here. Maybe we should increase our concern."
There's more on the mental health of children and adults at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.