The COVID-19 pandemic had a serious impact on maternal and family well-being, according to a new report. A study of roughly 400 Australian women has found that during the pandemic, a third of them experienced significant mental health problems, ongoing fatigue and parenting stress.
The research, which isn’t peer-reviewed, leans on data from the Mothers’ and Young People’s Study, a longitudinal study of over 1500 mothers and their children, based in Victoria.
“The mothers in this study had their first child in the early 2000s, and we’ve been following them ever since,” says Professor Stephanie Brown, head of the Intergenerational Health Group at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
At the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, the researchers started an extra survey with the cohort.
“We decided it would be a good opportunity to hear from both the mothers and the young people in the study, because they were between 14 and 17 in that first year of the pandemic,” explains Brown.
“We invited them to participate in two separate online surveys and followed them up again in 2021, about six months later.”
In the 2020 survey, during Victoria’s second lockdown, 53% of participants experienced fatigue, 41% anxiety, 33% irritability, 27% felt sad and 21% felt lonely.
On top of that, 80% of women in paid employment were stressed about work, while a quarter reported they’d lost income due to the pandemic.
“The impacts of the pandemic on women related to their unequal responsibilities for caring for children another family members,” says Brown.
“We saw women who were reducing their hours of work, stepping out of the workforce altogether in order to manage the remote schooling of their children during the pandemic. That was having flow-on effects to the family finances and adding to the stresses of that period.”
The survey also revealed that only half of the women reporting clinically significant symptoms of depression or anxiety were getting professional support.
“What the pandemic has done is highlighted gaps in the way in which our mental health and well being and primary care services are organised,” says Brown.
“Sometimes it was cost that was getting in the way of women accessing support for themselves, because they were giving priority to their children’s mental health. Sometimes it was just the logistics as well. At that particular time it was really difficult to get into mental health services, there were long waiting lists.”
Many of the indicators had improved by the time the second, early 2021, survey rolled around, but things weren’t back to normal.
“Early 2021 was a quite an optimistic period,” says Brown.
“We were out of lockdown in Victoria, it was summer, it was before there was a recognition of the ongoing waves of the virus. What we saw at that time was that impact on women’s mental health issues and fatigue had lessened somewhat, but they hadn’t gone back to pre-pandemic levels by any stretch.
“With what’s happened since, with repeated lockdowns in Victoria in 2021, and then this year, a really challenging winter right across the country with another wave of the virus – I think we’d be very likely, if we were in the field right now, to be seeing fatigue would be very high, and that mental health issues would also be quite high at the moment.”
The researchers will be following up with the survey participants later this year, as the second generation of the cohort begins to turn 18. A previously published survey of the young people found the pandemic also caused increases in mental health problems.
“It has really highlighted that we have services for young people, and we have mental health services for adults. But we don’t have this focus on these teenage years, that thinks about how we hold a whole family,” says Brown.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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