Mental health worsened for many people during the Covid-19 pandemic, but mothers experienced greater declines, on average, than other adults. New research, to be presented at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society, pinpoints the extent to which these declines were driven by school closures, as opposed to other effects of the pandemic.
The study found that the removal of this vital source of childcare caused mothers’ mental health to deteriorate significantly – by roughly the same amount as in the run-up to a relationship breakdown – but that it rebounded quickly once schools fully reopened. Fathers’ mental health was, on average, unaffected by school closures. This highlights that public support for childcare is likely to have beneficial effects for mothers’ mental health.
Schools in England were closed to most children in April and May 2020. The study exploits the decision by the UK government to prioritise the return to school of children in only some year groups in England in June and July 2020. This created variation in the availability of childcare for parents with children of similar ages for a roughly seven-week period in the summer of 2020 before the school holidays, after which schools reopened to all children in September 2020.
The research team for the project is Jo Blanden (University of Surrey), Claire Crawford (UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities), Laura Fumagalli (ISER, University of Essex) and Birgitta Rabe (ISER, University of Essex). Their study focuses on parents of children aged 4-12, comparing how their mental health changed as the pandemic unfolded.
In June 2020, when the government guidance meant that some children were more likely to be able to attend school than others, there was a clear divergence between the mental health of mothers with different access to school. Lack of access to school led to a significant worsening of mothers’ mental health, roughly equivalent to the change seen in couples going through a divorce, or about two-thirds of the overall worsening of mental health experienced by mothers in June 2020 compared to pre-pandemic levels. This suggests that school closures accounted for most of the deterioration in mental health experienced by mothers of pre-teen children during the pandemic.
By September 2020, however, when schools had reopened to all children, the mental health of all mothers was roughly similar: in other words, there were no lasting mental health implications of the seven-week period of school closures in summer 2020 – although mental health was still lower among all mothers, on average, than before the pandemic.
The effects of school closures were similar for different groups of mothers, including those with prior mental health issues. Social isolation is one potential explanation for the results, with mothers whose children were not able to go to school more likely to report feeling lonely than those whose children could return.
Existing evidence has demonstrated the importance of access to free or low-cost childcare for mothers’ ability to work. This study highlights an additional link between childcare availability and mothers’ mental health, strengthening the case for public support for childcare.
Claire Crawford (@claire_l_crawf on twitter)
Jo Blanden (@JoBlanden on Twitter/phone: 07881 953590)
Laura Fumagalli (@LauraFumagall17 on Twitter)
Birgitta Rabe (@rabe_b on Twitter)
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