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Study finds deterioration in family members’ mental health due to the pandemic

National lockdowns as a consequence of the pandemic have had an impact on the mental health and wellbeing of adults but little was known about the overall effect on family members.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to work and family life disruptions around the world and the resultant seclusion and social isolated from the imposition of national lockdowns has led to a deterioration of mental health compared with pre-pandemic levels. In contrast, a study among adolescents has revealed that, while levels of unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life were slightly higher during the pandemic, measures of depression and loneliness were actually lower. However, the impact upon younger children who are emotionally dependent upon parents has been less well studied and this led a team from Pennsylvania State University, US, to examine whether the likely increased parental stressors from the pandemic together with greater emotional needs to young children, had an overall negative effect on the mental health and wellbeing of family members. The researchers were fortunate in that they had already recruited parents into an earlier study which examined the effect of an intervention designed to support new parents conducted between 2008 and 2012. During April and May 2020, the researchers invited enrolled parents to complete an online questionnaire regarding adjustments during the pandemic. This collected data on depressive symptoms, anxiety, co-parenting conflict and external and internal behavioural problems related to their children, e.g., “often loses his/her temper” or “is often unhappy, depressed or tearful” and compared the results with pre-pandemic data.

Data were collected from 129 families with children for whom the average age was 9.9 years. Compared with data obtained before the pandemic, there was a clear change towards worsening of measures. For example, parents were 2.4 times more likely to report higher levels of depression during the pandemic and 2.5- and 4-times more likely to report child externalising and internalising respectively.

In a discussion of their findings, the authors noted that the data were consistent with elevated levels of parent and child stress and mental health difficulties during the pandemic. They also noted how there was a need for a more widespread family intervention to reduce both parental and child mental health and behavioural problems through screening as these problems were likely to persist after the pandemic.

Feinberg ME et al. Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on parent, child and family functioning. Fam Progress 2021