Meanwhile, there was no impact on the mental well-being of fathers.
Research by the University of Essex’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, in conjunction with the universities of Surrey and Birmingham, found that the mental health of mothers suffered as schools were forced to shut.
Schools across the UK were closed on 20 March 2020 due to the spread of Covid-19. Those in England went through a phased reopening from 1 June 2020.
In addition to their day jobs, women were tasked with childcare and homeschooling during this time, which led mothers of pre-teen children to feel more lonely, lose confidence and have difficulty sleeping.
The research, funded by Nuffield Health, was the first of its kind to look at how having children at home due to Covid lockdown school closures affected the mental health of parents.
Parents were asked to fill in a General Health Questionnaire, which is designed to measure a person’s current mental well-being.
On six separate occasions between April and November 2020, parents of children between the ages of four and 12, in school year groups between reception and year 7, reported worse mental health than a comparable group of parents interviewed in the same months before the pandemic.
For children whose return to school was prioritised in June 2020 as lockdown measures eased, the mental health of their parents improved, suggesting a causal link between school closures and declining mental health.
The data also found a clear difference between the mental health of mothers and fathers.
Researchers say the result “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”.
Mothers whose children were not prioritised to return to school were most affected by loneliness, as the social connections made during the school run were cut off and there was less time to socialise.
However, the research did find that, on average, the mental health decline of parents appeared to be temporary and improved when their children returned to school.
Research Fellow from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, Dr Laura Fumagalli, 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.”
Dr Claire Crawford, Reader in Economics from the University of Birmingham also said: “Our research suggests that, for the most part, mothers’ mental health seems to have bounced back once schools reopened, 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.”
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