Research Snapshot: The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on family mental health in Canada

What you need to know

There is evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic is having negative impacts on the mental health and well-being of families. Canadian researchers conducted a national cross-sectional survey focusing on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the well-being and mental health of families with children under 18 living at home. The authors collected community level data to help inform relevant policy and programming during and after the pandemic. This study found that parents of children under 18 living at home are at a higher risk of worsened mental health due to the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the rest of the population.

 

This Research Snapshot is based on the article, “Examining the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on family mental health in Canada: findings from a national cross-sectional study,” which was published in BMJ Open 2020. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2020-042871.

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What is this research about?

There is evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the mental health and well-being of families. Even with lockdown measures decreasing across Canadian provinces in early May 2020, many parents experienced increased stress, decreased social supports, and worsened mental health.

The closure of schools and child care centres put added pressure on parents to balance responsibilities, including taking care of their children’s education, while dealing with added financial and emotional stress. The social and economic impacts of the pandemic are having a devastating effect on families and young people, and research demonstrates that early exposure to stress can have a lasting effect on the mental health and well-being of children.

This is the first national Canadian survey that looked at the mental health and well-being of families with children living at home during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.  In this study, the authors conducted a cross-sectional survey looking at the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on families with children in Canada. The study aimed to answer the following three questions:

  1. How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the mental health of parents and children and what subgroups are most impacted by the pandemic?
  2. How have parent–child interactions changed due to the pandemic? and
  3. What are the factors that support mental health in the family context?

What did the researchers do?

The researchers conducted a cross-sectional survey of adults living in Canada to examine the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The data was collected during the initial wave of the pandemic from 3000 individuals aged 18 to 55 plus and living in Canada through an online survey from May 14 to May 29, 2020.  The study was a collaboration between academic researchers from the University of British Columbia, the Canadian Mental Health Association (Canada), and the Mental Health Foundation (UK).

The researchers compared the responses of parents with children under 18 years living at home and those who did not have children under 18 years living at home.

The researchers captured data on the following factors:

  • sociodemographic factors (e.g., gender, age, province of residence, rural vs. urban, education, marital status, household income, employment status, sexual orientation and gender identity, pre-existing mental health condition, disability, ethnicity and household composition)
  • child demographics (e.g., age and number of siblings at home).

The online survey included questions about the following:

  • mental health
  • emotional responses to the pandemic
  • changes in substance use
  • experiences of suicidal thoughts and self-harm
  • changes to parent-child interactions
  • impacts of the pandemic on children’s mental health
  • sources of stress and support for parents and their children.

What did the researchers find?

The researchers analyzed data from 3000 individuals and identified 618 parents with children under 18 living at home. The average age of the parents was 43 years and 52% identified as women.

The researchers found:

  • 44% of parents with children under 18 years living at home reported worse mental health as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to 36% of those with no children under 18 years living at home
  • 46% of parents were also worried about their financial status
  • 28% of parents reported increased alcohol consumption compared to 16% of those with no children living at home
  • 8% increased suicidal thoughts/feelings compared to 5% of those with no children at home
  • 12% increased stress about being safe from physical/emotional domestic violence compared with the rest of the sample compared to 8% of those with no children at home
  • While 22% of parents reported more conflicts during the pandemic, 50% of this group also reported increased feelings of closeness with their children during this time.

Parents found the following strategies helped them cope during the pandemic:

  • going for a walk/exercise (59%)
  • connecting with family and friends via phone and video chat (51%)
  • connecting with those in their household (48%)
  • maintaining a healthy lifestyle (38%).

The authors also found that parents with children at home worried about their children’s overall health, mental health and education, and had increased stress about looking after children while working from home. And while a quarter of parents reported their children’s mental health had worsened during the pandemic, more than half (60%) said their children’s mental health stayed the same.

Overall, the authors of the study found that families with children under 18 living at home experienced a decrease in their mental health and well-being due to the pandemic.

Limitations of the research

The researchers note that their study had several limitations. Since it focused on the Canadian context, it is not generalizable to other countries/contexts. In addition, survey responses were based on parents’ experiences at a specific point in time so the researchers could not determine any cause-and-effect relationship between the different impacts of the pandemic over time. Also, the study was conducted with an online survey, and there may have been selection bias. In addition, the survey did not capture the perspectives of children and youth themselves.

How can you use this research?

The authors note that more research is needed to help develop policies and services aimed at improving the well-being of families throughout the pandemic and beyond. They recommend considering interventions such as affordable childcare, low barrier internet access, publicly funded stepped care, psychotherapy and easy-to-access financial supports. Finally, they also recommend exploring options for financial supports beyond the pandemic, including universal basic income.

About the researchers

Anne M Gadermann, 1,2 Kimberly C Thomson,1,2 Chris G Richardson,2,3 Monique Gagné,1,2 Corey McAuliffe,4 Saima Hirani,4 Emily Jenkins4

  1. Human Early Learning Partnership, School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  2. Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences, Providence Health Care Research Institute, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  3. School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  4. School of Nursing, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada