COVID-19 pandemic may have increased mental health issues within families
April 13, 2021
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, many families found themselves suddenly isolated together at home. A year later, new research has linked this period with a variety of large, detrimental effects on individuals' and families' well-being and functioning.
The researchers found that parents were 2.4 times more likely to report "clinically significant" high levels of depression after the pandemic hit than before. They were also 2.5 times and 4 times more likely to report externalizing and internalizing problems, respectively, in their children at levels high enough that professional help might be needed.
Feinberg said that while it makes sense that families would experience these difficulties, he was shocked at the magnitude of the declines in well-being.
"The size of these changes are considered very large in our field and are rarely seen," Feinberg said. "We saw not just overall shifts, but greater numbers of parents and children who were in the clinical range for depression and behavior problems, which means they were likely struggling with a diagnosable disorder and would benefit from treatment."
Feinberg put the size of the declines in parent and child well-being in perspective by pointing out that the increase in parents' levels of depressive symptoms in the first months of the pandemic was about twice as large as the average benefit of antidepressants.
The researchers said that as the risk of future pandemics and natural disasters increases with the effects of climate change, so will the likelihood of families facing stressful conditions again in the future
"Getting ready for these types of crises could include helping families prepare -- not just by stocking up on supplies, but also by improving family resiliency and psychological coping resources," Feinberg said. "In my view, that means providing the kinds of family prevention programs we've been developing and testing at the Prevention Research Center for the past 20 years."
For example, Feinberg explained that their research shows that the Family Foundations program helps new parents develop stronger capacities for cooperation and support in their relationship with each other as coparents, which is a key dimension of family resiliency.
Feinberg said future research will examine whether families who went through Family Foundations or other programs were more resilient, maintained better family relationships, and experienced smaller declines in mental health during the pandemic.
Jacqueline Mogle, Jin-Kyung Lee, Samantha L. Tornello, Michelle L. Hostetler, Joseph A. Cifelli and Sunhye Bai, all at Penn State; and Emily Hotez, University of California, also participated in this work.
The National Institute of Child Health and Development and The Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences at Penn State helped support this research.