Article Written By Darren D. Moore, Ph.D.
With the onslaught of negative news stories and political upheaval our country has experienced throughout the past several years, many are experiencing an unprecedented psychological fallout. The pressure of a pandemic that is still present and upending lives after nearly three years coupled with the uncertainty of upcoming midterm elections are also taking a toll on the mental health of many Americans.
No other decision in recent memory has caused such raucous outcry than that of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which granted federal protections to one’s right to abortion. The medical community’s immediate reaction to Roe’s fall warned of the negative impact the Court’s decision would have on patients.
An Already Declining State of Mental Health
The overall mental health of Americans was not exactly on the upswing before Roe v. Wade was struck down. Weathering an extraordinary amount of history-making events, one after the other, has left many Americans feeling mentally battered and bruised. During the pandemic, about 40% of adults reported feelings of anxiety or depression. Increases in sleep disorders, eating disorders, and alcohol consumption were also reported.
Heaping the fall of Roe on top of an already mentally exhausted country seemed to be a particularly cruel turn of the screw. Now that there are added barriers to safe and legal abortion services, mental health professionals are preparing for added anxiety, stress, depression, and post-traumatic stress symptoms they fear will manifest in many of their patients. Although, in a country where mental health resources are already not meeting demand, the strike down of Roe v. Wade could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The Psychological Impact of Abortion
Studies cited by anti-abortion activists time and again preport to show that having an abortion leads to increased anxiety and depression for the mother. However, a recent report by the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion showed that these studies were often flawed and had significant issues with sample size, design, and interpretation of the data. The talking points repeated ad nauseam by the abortion opponents were based on erroneous data that cast a negative pall over seeking legal and safe abortion care.
A US Turnaway study of over 1,000 pregnant people showed that people who were denied abortions had higher anxiety than those who could access abortion. In contrast to what many anti-abortion activists report, those who received abortions did not experience an overall increase in anxiety or depression symptoms. The study also showed that those who were denied abortions fared worse over five years, experiencing poverty, a higher risk of domestic violence, and a higher likelihood of life-threatening complications.
Mental health professionals are likely to see feelings of hopelessness and disillusionment in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision. These symptoms are not limited to just those who seek abortions — women and other people who can become pregnant also now fear limits to IVF treatment, life-saving medical care for ectopic pregnancies, as well as medical and psychological support in cases of miscarriage.
Compounding this, there is also a broad fear of potential legal ramifications for those seeking abortion access in another state, should their home state outlaw the practice altogether. With everything about this private matter playing out in a public forum, many people feel exposed, vulnerable, and despondent over their lack of choice.
The snowball effect of Roe v. Wade being overturned also sends mental health shockwaves through other communities, including the LGBTQIA+ community. With the overturn of Roe came talks of other cases being overturned, such as Obergefell v. Hodges, which federally protects gay marriage. Despite ongoing efforts to codify same-sex marriage at the federal level, the anxiety of waiting for the “other shoe to drop,” so to speak, is high among many Americans.
What Mental Health Professionals Can Do
Given the circumstances, mental health professionals are currently faced with an immense challenge in addressing this increase in mental health needs. For instance, studies show that lower-income women are more likely to experience unplanned pregnancies, but are also less likely to have access to mental health care. The accessibility and affordability of mental health care in the United States have become a critical problem that we have just begun to see the adverse effects of.
Working mental health professionals must recognize the genuine effects that Roe’s fall will have on their patients and prepare to support them by validating their feelings and educating them on available resources that can offer assistance. Mental health professionals should be prepared to address the concerns of people in all areas of the spectrum surrounding abortion care: those who can become pregnant, those who are, those experiencing medical trauma, and those navigating life post-abortion or post-forced birth.
Education and resource allocation is crucial in this time of uncertainty. People experiencing hopelessness, depression, or heightened anxiety should contact their primary care provider and consider obtaining a referral for mental health treatment or reach out directly to a mental health professional who can provide assistance.
Many hope that the run of terrible occurrences in the United States — including the overturning of Roe v. Wade — will soon pass. Legislation waxes and wanes, and with a increased majority in the Senate come November, the administration may be able to kill the filibuster and codify abortion rights. However, none of this is guaranteed, and the uncertainty going forward will fuel an uptick in mental health symptoms among many. By remaining aware of our options, the laws in our states, and resources for help, we may be able to withstand this most recent political cataclysm.
— Darren D. Moore, Ph.D., is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in GA, AL, NY, NC, IL, & FL (telehealth credential), and the owner of I AM MOORE, LLC, a counseling and consulting practice in Georgia providing individual, couple, and family therapy services and consulting across multiple states. He is also a core faculty member and the Associate Director for Clinical Training and Supervision in the Master’s program for Marriage and Family Therapy at Northwestern University’s Family Institute. His areas of expertise include higher education administration, workplace and mental health, men’s health and mental health, couple and family relationships, obesity, weight loss, eating disorders, fatherhood, and fatherlessness. Dr. Moore obtained his Ph.D. in Human Development: Marriage and Family Therapy from Virginia Tech, his MS in Marriage and Family Therapy from Valdosta State University, his BA in African American Studies from the University of Minnesota, and holds a MAED in Higher and Postsecondary Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. Dr. Moore has been featured on WLTZ TV.