March 25, 2021

COVID-19 sees rise of maternal mental health difficulties

In wake of post-pandemic turmoil, symptoms of anxiety and depression nearly doubled in mothers
Sheri Madigan and Nicole Racine
Sheri Madigan and Nicole Racine Madigan photo: Mark Agius. Racine photo courtesy of Nicole Racine

Symptoms of anxiety and depression in mothers nearly doubled last year in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic according to a newly published University of Calgary-led study in prominent mental health journal The Lancet Psychiatry.

Between May and July of 2020, the symptoms of depression in Canadian mothers charted at 35 per cent, up from 19 per cent in the pre-COVID period documented between 2017 and 2019. Symptoms of anxiety, meanwhile, were at 31 per cent between May and July 2020, up from 18 per cent during the 2017-2019 period.

The findings are taken from the All Our Families Study, a UCalgary project led by Dr. Suzanne Tough, PhD, from the Cumming School of Medicine and co-author on the paper. The study has followed nearly 3,000 Albertan mothers and their children over the last 12 years to better understand their mental health and well-being. Mothers were recruited into the study when they were pregnant, and their children are now nine to 11 years old. A survey of these mothers at the onset of the pandemic provided a unique opportunity to understand the mental health changes they experienced in the early months of COVID-19.

Dr. Sheri Madigan, PhD, a UCalgary clinical psychologist and Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development, who co-authored the paper, notes that approximately 60 per cent of the families sampled experienced a significant income hit in the early months of the pandemic.

Difficult time for families

“The data collected between May and July of 2020 is a snapshot of a considerably difficult time for families,” Madigan says. “Everything was shut down and many jobs had been lost. People were reeling from economic changes, childcare services were lost, and parents were home-schooling, often balancing that with working from home.”

Dr. Nicole Racine, PhD, a postdoctoral associate, clinical psychologist and lead author of the paper, notes that mothers have taken on “the lion’s share of extra stressors in the home, related to domestic tasks, home schooling and childcare responsibilities.”

“These responsibilities have been spread out a little more amongst moms and dads over the course of pandemic,” says Racine, “but women are still shouldering the majority of that burden and this likely contributes to rising mental health difficulties.”

Madigan reports that the All Our Families team has recently resurveyed the families involved with the study. “We want to see if this near doubling of stressors has been sustained over the past year,” she says. “This will be of crucial importance as we look into recovery planning for these families, and then policy-makers can make informed decisions about allocating funds to mental health resources.”

We’re speculating that the fourth wave of the pandemic is going to be a mental health wave, and that this will be sustained for a very long time.

Multiple stressors could create long-term tolls

Other stressors taking their toll on both mothers and fathers is the loss of social support that comes from being able to see family and friends. Having caregivers in the home and access to childcare are other social supports that have been impacted and, in many cases, lost due to COVID-19.

“Parents have had to shoulder enormous stress during the pandemic,” says Madigan. “They’ve been sandwiched in a generation where they’re worried about their kids, the younger generation, and worried about their parents, the older generation. ‘I’ve got to take care of my kids and I have to worry if my parents are healthy. But I can’t physically go and help my parents because that puts them at risk.’ They’re stuck in a really tough spot with few resources to get through it unscathed.”

Racine adds: “I think sustained lack of social support and chronic exposure to stress might create long-term tolls on mental health, that are likely to be sustained, even as we recover from the pandemic.”

The study authors stress that maternal mental health and well-being should be at the centre of COVID-19 pandemic recovery efforts. Among their recommendations:

  • Increased mental health supports for mothers, including more telemental health services (mental health support that is provided online).
  • Ongoing support to ensure stability in housing and basic needs.
  • Flexible employment policies that allow both mothers and fathers to adequately care and home-school their children.
  • Universal access and supports for affordable childcare, out-of-school care, and education.

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Nicole Racine is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology (Faculty of Arts).

Suzanne Tough is a professor in the Departments of Paediatrics and Community Health Sciences (Cumming School of Medicine) and a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI), the Owerko Centre at ACHRI and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.

Sheri Madigan is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology (Faculty of Arts) and a member of ACHRI, the Owerko Centre at ACHR and the Mathison Centre of Mental Health Research & Education at the CSM. She is a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development.