There’s no facet of family life that hasn’t been disrupted by the pandemic, so it’s no surprise it’s been a stressful period. Now, there are some numbers to show the extent of the issue.
Mental health issues are top of mind, with a new report showing 69 per cent of parents experienced significant depressive symptoms within the seven days preceding the survey, 38 per cent reported moderate to severe levels of anxiety and 40 per cent reported an increase in alcohol intake.
The survey was carried out by the Offord Centre for Child Studies and McMaster University, with more than 10,000 Ontario parents taking part. Andrea Gonzalez, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences, was the research lead.
“We asked more specific questions about how children were doing, and we asked caregivers to randomly choose a target child if they had two or more children in the household. Almost 40 per cent of caregivers indicated that COVID-19 had a negative impact on emotional health and 16 per cent indicated it had a negative impact on their child’s physical health. They gave us some indication of how the children were actually doing,” she said.
Parents reported significant difficulties with concentration, restless sleep, effort, and motivation. As many parents or caregivers had to work a full-time job from home while suddenly becoming a teacher to their children, it brought on many challenges.
“We had already been in the pandemic for over a year. Parents, in particular caregivers, had been through a lot. We had more lockdowns in school and remote learning days than any other province in the country,” said Gonzalez. “A lot of our respondents were employed and a lot of the messages that came out of the written responses when we asked about how COVID had impacted them, a lot of it was about the challenges in juggling – having to work from home and having one or more children to look after. I think people were just really, really burnt out.”
The survey showed that isolation and time away from school and friends had the greatest negative impact on children. Close to 16 per cent indicated a decline in their child’s physical health, while 7.5 per cent reported a positive impact on their child’s physical health.
“Over 50 per cent had indicated that they had gained weight since COVID had started. We didn’t ask about the degree of weight gain, but still it’s more than half of our sample, which was quite large,” she added of the results.
The first-year survey done during the height of the pandemic had more than 7,000 parents or caregivers respond. This year, it was 10,778. Some 36 per cent of parents or caregivers reported that COVID-19 had a high negative impact on their child’s mental and emotional health. Only 10 per cent of parents indicated that there was a substantial positive impact on their child’s mental and emotional health.
In the survey, 60 per cent of parents indicated their children were feeling lonely and isolated from friends during the pandemic. Some positive impacts were also reported from families, with 60 per cent indicating their children were spending more time with family, 23.3 per cent had more time to relax and 15.2 per cent had more time to engage in activities they do not usually have time for, like cooking or writing.
“There were positive messages in there too, like people talking more about being in nature and people talking more about spending more time with family too. People indicated that not having to commute meant that they actually taught their children more because most of the time their kids were in before and after care, and they had to commute, so it was just really small slices of time that they saw each other through the week. And so, in that way, COVID was positive.”
Sixty-three per cent of parents or caregivers indicated moderate to high levels of concern about the impact COVID-19 had on their child’s education. Some 54 per cent reported needing to multitask home and work responsibilities often to very often at the same time. Gonzalez noted that after looking over the survey and talking to parents, the most important thing caregivers can do is take care of themselves, adding that self-care fell to the wayside during the pandemic, which could also be the reason for high weight gain and alcohol consumption.
Researchers had a number of takeaways from the feedback.
“I think the biggest one we’re hearing clear again is schools should remain open. Should they close, I think there are some fundamental things that could potentially be in place, the same break time across the classes within the same school at least, having resource rooms for children who are struggling or who need extra assistance or can’t learn when there are 30 children on a screen altogether,” she said.
Plans are already in the works for a similar survey next year to help determine the full effect of the pandemic on Ontario families.