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Mental health profiles among married, never-married, and separated/divorced mothers in a nationally representative sample



Several studies have found that married mothers compared to single mothers had better mental health (Cairney et al. in Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 38:442–449, 2003; Cairney et al. in Can J Public Health 90:320–324, 1999; Davies et al. in J Marriage Fam 59:294–308, 1997; Lipman et al. in Am J Psychiatry 158:73–77, 2001; Wang in Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 39:26–32, 2004). Although a relationship between family structure (single vs married mothers) and psychiatric disorders is well established, several questions remain. The present study addressed the question “Are there differences in the prevalence of psychiatric disorders between married, never-married, and separated/divorced mothers?”


The present report examined the lifetime prevalence of anxious misery, fear, and externalizing disorders among mothers in relation to family structure (married, never-married, and separated/divorced) in the US National Comorbidity Survey (N=1,534).


Results indicated that never-married mothers appeared to be generally similar to married mothers in their mental health profiles. Separated/divorced mothers compared to married mothers had increased odds of having any anxious-misery disorder, depression, dysthymia, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), posttraumatic stress disorder, any externalizing disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. Differences were found between never-married and separated/divorced mothers, with separated/divorced mothers having increased odds ratios of having any anxious-misery disorder, depression, and GAD.


Results are discussed in light of the unique life contexts of married, never-married, and separated/divorced mothers and as further evidence for the case against combining the separated/divorced and never-married marital status into one “single motherhood” classification in mental health research.

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This research was supported by a graduate studentship from the Manitoba Health Research Council awarded to the first author and grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and the Canada Research Chairs program awarded to the second author. The National Comorbidity Survey (Dr. R.C. Kessler, Principal Investigator) was sponsored by the US National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, and the W.T. Grant Foundation.

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Correspondence to Tracie O. Afifi.

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Afifi, T.O., Cox, B.J. & Enns, M.W. Mental health profiles among married, never-married, and separated/divorced mothers in a nationally representative sample. Soc Psychiat Epidemiol 41, 122–129 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-005-0005-3

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Key words

  • single mothers
  • divorce
  • mental health
  • psychiatric disorders