Study highlights mental health impact of school closures on mums

Mothers’ mental health was significantly affected by schools closures during lockdown, but fathers’ were unaffected, says a new study.

Woman helps daughter with homeschooling at the table

 

Mothers’ mental health deteriorated significantly when schools were closed while fathers’ were not affected, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Universities of Essex, Surrey and Birmingham, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, looked at the dynamics of parents’ mental health during the pandemic, based on data from around 1,500 mothers and fathers. They say the study is the first of its kind to look specifically at the impact of having children at home as a result of school closures, separating it from other factors affecting parents’ mental health during the pandemic.

The researchers found that on six occasions between April 2020 and November 2020 parents with children aged 4-12 (in year groups Reception to Year 7) reported worse mental health than a comparable sample of parents interviewed in the same months before the pandemic. Differences were larger for mothers than fathers. Previous research has shown that mothers took on most of the homeschooling during Covid and that working mums were more likely to be interrupted than male partners as a result of children being at home.

To isolate the causal effect of school closures, the researchers made use of the fact that, in England, certain primary school year groups (Reception, Year 1 and Year 6) were prioritised to return to school earlier than others after the first lockdown, from 1st June 2020 up to the summer holidays. This means that school attendance in these year groups was much higher than amongst similar aged children in other year groups who were not prioritised to return.

Compared to April/May 2020, when schools were closed for most children, mental health improved in June 2020 for mothers whose children were prioritised to return to school compared to those who were not. The researchers say this suggests that school closures had a significant detrimental effect on mothers’ mental health. In contrast, for fathers it made no difference to their mental health whether or not their children were prioritised to return to school.

The researchers say the size of the effect is equivalent to a mother moving from feeling unhappy or depressed ‘no more than usual’ to somewhere between ‘rather more than usual’ and ‘much more than usual’ and suggests that school closures could be responsible for around half of the decline in mental health experienced by mothers in June 2020 compared to previous Junes. These effects were driven primarily by mothers with more than one child aged 4-12.

One of the ways in which mothers were affected was loneliness: the researchers found that mothers whose children were less likely to return to school reported feeling more lonely – perhaps missing the social connections of the school run or the time to connect with friends in other ways.

The researchers say the mental health effects for mothers seemed to be temporary, at least on average: the differences seen in June between mothers with or without children in priority year groups had roughly halved by July and disappeared by September.

Dr Laura Fumagalli, Research Fellow from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, said: “We estimate that school closures could be responsible for around half of the decline in mental health experienced by mothers during the pandemic. It is striking that on average fathers’ mental health does not seem to be affected by school closures.”

Alex Beer, Welfare Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation, added: “This important research highlights the widespread impact of school closures, which go beyond the impact on children’s learning and well-being, and detrimentally affected mothers’ mental health. This adds to a wider body of evidence showing that parents, especially mothers, have paid a heavy price during lockdown, with mothers being more likely than fathers to have left paid work, seen reductions in their working hours and juggled work with caring responsibilities.”



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