NEWS

Moms’ Mental Health Suffered From Pandemic School Closures

mom puts her head in her hands at the kitchen table

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study shows that loneliness led to mental health struggles in moms during pandemic school lockdowns.
  • The detrimental feelings related to the school closures were short-lived and got better when kids returned to school.

One of the most impactful elements of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic was the closure of schools. Children dealt with the loss of social and academic interaction.

One study, published in a briefing from the Institute for Social & Economic Research at the University of Essex, shows that the closures also had an impact on mothers and their mental health. Moms experienced depression and unhappiness at higher levels when schools were closed. Those mental health challenges, however, were short-lived.

School Closures and Mental Health

The school closures in the U.K. allowed researchers at the Universities of Birmingham, Essex, and Surrey to have a ready-made study environment. Following school closures at the start of the pandemic, three grades of students ages 4 to 12 years old were allowed to return for six weeks in June 2020.

Using data from Understanding Society, the U.K. Household Longitudinal Study, researchers were able to examine responses from the General Health Questionnaire. They looked at answers parents gave pre-pandemic, during the school lockdown, and after some children were allowed to return to school. By combing this data, researchers were able to form a picture of the mothers’ mental health.

Researchers found that mothers of more than one child in the age range experienced the greatest degree of decline. Moms moved from responding that they felt unhappy or depressed “no more than usual” to answering “rather more than usual” as well as “much more than usual.”

Birgitta Rabe, PhD

We can compare the mental health of the mothers who had children going back, and we find they’re doing much better. That’s basically the cause and effect we’re looking at in this study.

— Birgitta Rabe, PhD

But when some children returned to the classroom in June, the mothers of those children had a change in responses. Unhappiness and depression were less of a problem. Researchers noted the short-lived nature of some of the mental health struggles. They were able to extract other causes for the issues, such as finances and employment. They pinpointed the root of the moms’ challenges.

“We can compare the mental health of the mothers who had children going back, and we find they’re doing much better. That’s basically the cause and effect we’re looking at in this study,” states Birgitta Rabe, PhD, associate professor of economics at the University of Essex and one of the authors of the study.

The authors acknowledge that their six-week study doesn’t give insight into the cumulative effect of longer closures. The data was also limited to UK households. The study does, however, provide a closer look into how moms dealt with school closures there.

The Impact of Loneliness

Besides the stress of potential sickness from COVID-19 and sheltering-in-place, the real question is why did mothers have the huge spike in mental health decline? Dr. Rabe notes that mothers didn’t have problems with being unable to work, or severe worries dealing with finances. They did, however, experience loneliness.

Moms were home with their children, with little interaction with people outside of their home. Chatting with other parents while dropping off children at school, talking to teachers, or having coffee with friends, disappeared. The absence of those small times of adult face-to-face contact had a large impact.

“You’re very isolated in your world. That’s the picture of why you might be lonely. You don’t have any of the everyday interactions and you don’t have (those) meaningful interactions,” explains Rachael Benjamin, LCSW, director of Tribeca Maternity.

Moms missed adult companionship. They lacked socialization, just like their children. And with moms often functioning as the temperature-gauge of the household, how they feel impacts the way the kids feel.

Parents who are depressed may be less emotional and expressive with their children. The kids, in turn, may act out with behavioral problems or have poor academic performance.

Self-Care Is the Best Care

Awareness of the mental health decline and the influence it has over the entire household is important.

While moms may be trying to make sure everyone in the household is functioning and doing as well as possible under the circumstances, she can’t forget that she also is grappling with her own feelings. Making the effort to take care of her own needs is critical.

Rachael Benjamin, LCSW

Moms are more complicated than ‘fine’. They might feel fine, they might operate as fine. And maybe they are fine on some days. But we really need to look at their complexity and that they’re allowed to have that complexity throughout the day.

— Rachael Benjamin, LCSW

“Moms are more complicated than ‘fine’. They might feel fine, they might operate as fine. And maybe they are fine on some days. But we really need to look at their complexity and that they’re allowed to have that complexity throughout the day,” Benjamin states.

Giving voice to those feelings may mean going for a run, or running a warm bath, or relaxing and watching TV. It may also mean more phone calls with friends or even zoom sessions. It means saying it’s okay to struggle and finding ways to alleviate some of the unhappiness.

“For a parent, it’s important to acknowledge the difficulties. It’s important to validate the experience that people have had,” Dr. Rabe concludes.

What This Means For You

Moms have to take care of themselves. While getting out of the house in the same way may not be a possibility, carve out time for self-care in other ways. Curling up with a good book, watching your favorite show alone, and even exercise are great ways to give yourself some enjoyment. Take care of yourself, so you can take care of everyone you care about.

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2 Sources
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  1. University of Essex, Institute for Social & Economic Research. School closures and parents' mental health. Published May 31, 2021.

  2. Yale Medicine. Parental depression: how it affects a child. Updated December 3, 2019.