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The Roe v. Wade decision is “pushing people into psychological crisis,” mental health expert warns

June 24, 2022, 8:45 PM UTC
A pro-choice supporter cries outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on June 24, 2022.
Olivier Douliery—AFP via Getty Images

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision guaranteeing federal protection of abortion rights, experts warn of dire mental health consequences. Frank C. Worrell, president of the American Psychological Association (APA) calls for mental health providers to support people as they grapple with their reproductive health decisions. 

“We are setting up a situation where we are deliberately pushing people into a psychological crisis,” Worrell tells Fortune, emphasizing that the decision will disproportionately hurt the mental health of low-income individuals and people of color. “If you live in a state with a law that will get rid of abortion, your level of anxiety will go up.” Even for those who are not pregnant, Worrell says, there is new anxiety that can impact people’s everyday lives, as they worry about what may happen if they don’t have a choice when pregnant. And for many seeking abortions, he says, the decision affects how they feel they are seen in society, highlighting fears of being judged as irresponsible or criminal. 

“This ruling ignores not only precedent but science, and will exacerbate the mental health crisis America is already experiencing,” Worrell said in a statement today.  “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,” the statement continued.

Research does point to adverse mental health effects of being denied an abortion. The Turnaway study, a long-term study on roughly 1,000 people examining the impacts of unwanted pregnancy on people’s lives, found that those who were denied abortions faced years of economic hardship, which had a negative impact on the financial security of their children, and on the mental health of the caretakers.

Julia Steinberg, an associate professor of family science at the University of Maryland, specializing in the intersection of mental and reproductive health, worries about individuals in states immediately set to ban abortions. 

“Individuals who have to go to greater lengths to try to get an abortion will probably experience more distress,” Steinberg says, pointing to the anxiety of being criminalized coupled with the economic issues that can arise when traveling to find abortion care. “As you increase structural barriers to having an abortion, that does affect individuals’ psychological health.” 

With abortion access now left up to the states, Dr. Carolyn M. West, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Washington, Tacoma, highlights the mental impact of those who live with an abusive domestic partner who may be forced to stay in contact with them due to being denied access to an abortion. 

“You’re going to have to be managing a pregnancy in the midst of a really unhealthy, unsafe intimate partner relationship, and so that will have profound mental health impacts,” West says. “Being forced to carry their pregnancy to term, that can lead to certain higher rates of depression…particularly when you’re struggling to provide basic necessities for yourself and a child.”  

Michelle Simpson Tuegel, a Dallas-based victims rights attorney, says her clients’ pain is already high enough. 

“I have seen how women’s lives are decimated when they are victims of sexual violence and removing their choice to end a pregnancy just compounds that trauma and that pain,” Tuegel says. 

Experts say people will need adequate mental health support following this decision as it won’t only impact those seeking an abortion. 

“We are going to need a robust safety net of mental health providers and material resources to help women, men and families manage this,” West says.  

The need for mental health providers skyrocketed during the pandemic, and there will be a new group of individuals who need care, Worrell says. He hopes providers can create group environments where people can safely divulge their fears, anxieties and stressors around reproductive health. 

“Going into spaces we wouldn’t normally… like schools, community centers, neighborhoods,” Worrell says, “To give people a space to express their concerns and provide some support and help them think through solutions.” 

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