For most parents, to say the Covid-19 pandemic has been stressful would be a dramatic understatement. The combination of financial pressure, loss of child care, and health concerns are exceedingly challenging for families.
Mental health problems are expected to rise dramatically as a secondary effect of Covid-19 and the measures that have been put in place to contain it.
The potential long-term consequences on children from increased parental stress, anxiety, and depression are only beginning to be understood. However, past research tells us that the children exposed to these problems are more likely to experience mental health problems themselves, in addition to developing an increased risk of learning and behaviour problems and reduced economic mobility throughout their lives.
We need to develop an approach that helps parents now and protects children’s futures.
Escalation in parental anxiety and depression
In our current studies, we report that pregnant mothers and those with young children are experiencing three- to five-fold increases in self-reported anxiety and depression symptoms. A history of mental illness, current domestic conflict, and financial stress were associated with worse mental health across multiple child age groups.
These figures are especially concerning because young children are highly vulnerable to maternal mental illness due to their near-total reliance on caregivers to meet basic health and safety needs.
High rates of parental mental illness combined with children spending more time at home due to Covid-19 present multiple risks, including alterations in children’s stress-system function, higher rates of physical health problems, and cognitive impairments.
Parenting stress associated with mental illness can lead to negative interactions, including harsh discipline and being less responsive to children’s needs.
For parents, depression contributes to health problems and low quality of life. Suicide is a leading cause of death for women of child-bearing age that we expect to increase should high rates of mental health problems continue to be unaddressed.
Mental health system needs urgent improvement
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and other child welfare leaders highlight the critical nature of prioritising parent mental health services so that parents can build their capacity to fulfil children’s health and development needs.
Addressing parental mental illness not only mitigates harmful effects on child health but builds children’s capacities to manage other stressors, such as school transitions and other unpredictable events.
Effective treatments exist for parental mental illness; however, the high barriers to accessing standard care have become even higher during Covid-19. Existing barriers such as the high cost of psychotherapy and childcare demands have been exacerbated due to physical distancing, closure of existing services, and closure of daycares and schools.
Shifting treatment options to evidence-based online formats has also been slow and requires substantial investments for large-scale delivery and programme refinement in response to current needs.
Another problem is that most existing telehealth models do not simultaneously treat parental mental illness and parenting risks, despite substantial evidence for the importance of addressing both.
Notably, parent mental illness is disproportionately experienced in racialised communities that face both racism and systemic oppression. Failing to address the mental health and parenting needs at both the population level and in response to community-identified needs will only perpetuate intergenerational health inequities.
-The authors: Leslie E. Roos is an Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Manitoba and Lianne Tomfohr-Madsen is an Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary. This article was first published in The Conversation