Study: Parents report higher stress, depression, anxiety during pandemic

Clinical Research professor: ‘A lot of people are struggling’ while juggling home schooling, jobs and other stressors during pandemic

Parents are more stressed out and are reporting higher levels of anxiety and depression due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a newly published study led by Campbell University Professor of Clinical Research Dr. Miranda van Tilburg. 

The results shouldn’t come as a surprise — especially for parents who have had to deal with school closures, jobs losses and interruptions in medical care for their children since March — but they do back the nation’s mental health concerns with scientific data and make the argument for increased mental health care in the country. 

“People might wonder, ‘We know we’re more stressed. Why are you telling me this?’ but in science, we always have to show the numbers,” van Tilburg says. “And I think it also validates a lot of parents and tells them they’re not alone. It’s normal to feel this way during this pandemic. A lot of people are struggling.” 

The study — conducted April 10-17, barely a month into the stay-home orders and business closings brought on by the pandemic during its early stages in the U.S. — sampled more than 600 parents (roughly half of them parents of children with chronic conditions) from across the country representing a broad range of demographics. Women made up approximately 60 percent of those included. Parents completed an online questionnaire about their previous seven days and rated their stress levels, their ability to cope, their marital satisfaction and their levels of anxiety and depression.

The study found that 39 percent of parents reported that dealing with children was more stressful than before pandemic restrictions. More than one-third of parents worried about the future of their jobs “a lot” or “a great deal,” and 30 percent of parents found their jobs to be more stressful.

Perhaps most telling, nearly half of the parents reported mild to moderate levels of anxiety (44.6 percent) and depression (42.2 percent) during that time. The stress, anxiety and depression levels were higher in parents of children with chronic conditions.

“We looked at a lot of different stressors,” van Tilburg says. “In our study, we looked at the main stressors due to COVID-19. A lot of them were work-related — people were losing their jobs or having their pay reduced. And even if they weren’t affected yet, they were worried about the future of their jobs. Another stressor for parents was online schooling and children being at home without access to their usual social support system. Daycares were closed, schools were closed, playdates were not happening.”

Van Tilburg says parents weren’t necessarily doing “poorly” with coping with these stressors, but “all of those worries [combined], and all of the isolation really did a number on us.” 

“Even people who are usually good with dealing with stress have had hard moments in these past seven months.” 

The effect of this stress on children was not reported in the study, but van Tilburg — whose past research has focused primarily on pediatrics — says higher stress, anxiety and depression levels in parents can certainly have a negative impact on their children. 

“We’ve found that when parents are dealing with something traumatic, how smaller children respond to these events depends on how their parents respond,” she says. “Some children will breeze through traumatic experiences, because their parents are helping them see it in a different light — helping them cope and showing that that, yes, this is hard, but we can deal with this. 

“I can’t tell anyone to just stay happy through trauma, but how we communicate our stress to our children verbally and nonverbally determines how well they do, and that’s a very well-established phenomenon,” she adds. 

The implications of the study, she says, is that more adults are seeking mental health care because of COVID-19. She calls the country’s mental health system “underfunded” with a lack of quality providers, and these worries are magnified when it comes to mental health in pediatrics. 

“Knowing we will have this tsunami of kids and parents coming for mental health care between now and the next couple of years, we are going to overtax the system and not really be able to help everyone,” she says. “It’s sad, but it is a reality that we need to prepare for.” 

Photo courtesy of UNC Health / UNC SOM