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Mothers pay mental health price for school closures

Homeschool crop

An important new study looking at parents’ mental health through 2020 has pinpointed the detrimental impact of school closures. Researchers at the Universities of Essex, Surrey and Birmingham, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, consider the dynamics of parents’ mental health during the pandemic. 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.

To isolate the causal effect of school closures the researchers make 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. This suggests that school closures have 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 size of the effect is equivalent to a mother moving from feeling a problem such as being 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 are driven primarily by mothers with more than one child aged 4-12.

One of the ways in which mothers were affected is 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 mental health effects for mothers seem 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. This contrasts with the researchers’ findings for children in an earlier study, where they found that the mental health gap between children in priority and non-priority year groups did not fall, even after all children had returned to school in September 2020.

The study uses data from Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS). The analysis of school closures uses data from the Understanding Society COVID-19 survey collected during the pandemic in April, May, June, July, September and November 2020 and covers around 1500 mothers and fathers.

Dr Laura Fumagalli, Research Fellow from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex said: “The impact of having children out of school on mothers’ mental health is substantial, and an important hidden cost of lockdown. Our study shows - for the first time – the strain of school closures on mothers’ mental health. 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.”

Dr Claire Crawford, Reader in Economics from the University of Birmingham said: “Our research suggests that, for the most part, mothers’ mental health seems to have bounced back once schools re-opened, suggesting that the negative effects of school closures were temporary for many mothers. This contrasts with our earlier findings on children’s mental health, which does not recover so quickly. Though we do not know what the cumulative effects of school closures may have been for parents or children, our results suggest that support to deal with the mental health effects of school closures is going to be more important for children than parents, and should be an important part of the government’s ‘catch-up’ strategy for children.“

Alex Beer, Welfare Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation said: “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.”

Notes for Editors • The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance educational opportunity and social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare and Justice. It also provides opportunities for young people to develop skills and confidence in science and research. The Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit www.nuffieldfoundation.org

• This research uses data from Understanding Society and the additional Understanding Society Covid-19 data sets. Understanding Society is the UK Household Longitudinal Study. It follows tens of thousands of households across the UK through yearly interviews that focus on social, economic, and health topics. The Study is based at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex. www.understandingsociety.ac.uk

• The Understanding Society Covid-19 study is a monthly survey on the experiences and reactions of the UK population to the Covid-19 pandemic, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Health Foundation. The first wave was carried out online in April 2020 and subsequent waves have been carried out at regular intervals. All Understanding Society adult sample members aged 16+ were invited to participate. ESRC is part of UK Research and Innovation. The Health Foundation is an independent charity committed to bringing about better health and health care for people in the UK.

• For an embargoed copy of the full report (published 31 May 2021) or interviews with the research team please contact Louise Cullen, Communications and Engagement Manager, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex lcullen@essex.ac.uk

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