A new study reports higher levels of anxiety and depression among parents during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Stacy Cochran Nowell doesn’t need documentation to tell her that.
“The spring was awful. It really was. It was incredibly difficult,” said Nowell, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Huntersville, N.C., and the mother of two young children. “I was blessed to work at home, but it was extremely difficult for myself and both the children.”
The extent of that difficulty, and its long-term impact on parents, is the focus of a newly published study led by Miranda van Tilburg, a professor of clinical research at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C.
According to the nationwide study conducted during one week in April, 39% of parents found dealing with their children to be more stressful than before pandemic lockdown requirements went into effect. Additionally, a third of parents said they harbored significant worries about job security and 30% said their jobs were more stressful than before the coronavirus outbreak.
Also measured was the emotional impact of lost jobs, pay cuts and online schooling.
“It is all these stressors combined plus worries about getting COVID and not being able to get medical care for their children — every parent has experienced it,” van Tilburg said. “This pandemic is really taking a toll on parents, but I don’t think that’s really earth-shattering news to anybody.”
What may be more alarming is the study’s look at how parental well-being may be affected going forward. It found that almost 50% of parents surveyed have experienced mild to moderate anxiety levels and depression.
“Some parents have been under so much stress that their anxiety and depression levels have likely doubled, maybe even tripled.”
“Some parents have been under so much stress that their anxiety and depression levels have likely doubled, maybe even tripled,” van Tilburg said. Stress came from so many directions for parents that they were totally overwhelmed.
“Remember, it was in the first weeks of the pandemic. Everything was closed. Parents did not have access to child care, and grandma and grandpa and neighbors couldn’t come over to help with the kids because you don’t want to get them sick,” she explained. “For a time even regular medical appointments were unavailable, leading parents to worry about their children’s health.
“So, now you have a toddler running around and you are fighting your older kids about school and somehow you have to get 40 hours of work done. It was a perfect storm in terms of what the pandemic was doing to parents.”
Physical and emotional depletion is a common after-effect. “There are certain stressors we get used to, but others just grind on us and grind on us and it becomes this chronic stress,” van Tilburg said.
These effects can be further compounded by the isolation imposed by the pandemic, cutting parents off from their support systems, the professor said. “We know that isolation is very stressful to people. We are social animals. We want to be around other people; we need to be around other people.”
“A tsunami of requests is coming for mental health care.”
One of the cumulative effects of these trends will be to overwhelm the nation’s mental health care system, van Tilburg added. “A tsunami of requests is coming for mental health care.”
In Jacksonville, Fla., child and adolescent psychologist Karla Repper said that wave already has arrived.
“Across the board, our requests for services are way up,” she said of the health system in which she practices. “There is a significant increase in the number of people seeking new-patient services.”
Repper, who is a member of Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church, said providing therapy to children often involves helping adults with parenting skills in part by coping with stress— and even more so during the pandemic.
She has had to find strategies to adjust, too. The pandemic forced her to start a Zoom practice at home where her third and sixth graders were attending virtual school. The younger child needed regular help with technology, and the older one required help staying on task.
Repper said she experienced feelings of panic and suffered from lack of stimulation caused by being stuck at home, which increased her feelings of agitation. “I remember the whole month of April thinking, what in the world are we going to do?”
Nowell said the experience of managing her children’s schooling while leading a church, all remotely, was often too much. “There was a lot of restlessness and a lot of anxiety.”
For her, some of the stress was relieved in the fall by her church opening space for distance learning where children can log into to virtual school.
“Our family has reached a new equilibrium only because of church,” Nowell said. “I couldn’t sustain this if it was like before.”