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New policy brief underscores the plight of parenting in a pandemic

There is a “secret society” at the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), just like there is at every workplace across the country. Its members recognize each other through various signs and signals — some subtle, others less so.

Do you take calls in the blessed quiet of a car, in the bedroom closet, or in the relative peace of the furnace room? Are you the person at the meeting who switches off your camera so you can pour a bowl of goldfish crackers and offer feedback on an indiscernible drawing of a cat (or is it a crow)? Do you hear yourself saying, “I’ll help you find your shoe/bunny/imperceptibly tiny Lego accessory as soon as I finish writing this report/booking this meeting/drafting this article”?

If your answer to any of these questions is yes, chances are you’re part of the club.

Parents of young children have borne the brunt of COVID-19 stress — mothers especially. Consider new research from the MHCC (in partnership with the Canadian Paediatric Society), which found rates of depression during the pandemic among mothers of infants and children (age 18 months to eight years) rising to 42 per cent from nine per cent.

A growing need
Even before COVID-19, signs that we needed to rethink the services and supports available to families were already appearing, especially among those facing the additional stressors of financial insecurity, low social support, or racial discrimination. Pre-pandemic, less than 20 per cent of families had access to the greatest equalizer of disparities in the early years: affordable, licensed, early childhood education centres.

Since the pandemic began, families have been forced to deal with an additional range of unplanned complications, from social isolation and disruptions in child care and schooling to financial worries and loss of employment. Unsurprisingly, the result has been increased family conflict, including divorce.

Samantha Bennett, a parent who works in the MHCC’s Public Affairs department, is no stranger to this reality. “At the onset of the pandemic, I lost my mom, my husband lost his job, and my children lost their routine,” she explained. “There is no doubt in my mind that the adverse experiences parents are contending with have a trickle-down effect when it comes to children’s well-being.”

Bennett’s anecdotal findings are corroborated by the 40 per cent of Ontario parents who report behavioural and emotional changes in their children and the 61 per cent of parents across Canada who are concerned about managing their child’s behaviour, anxiety, emotions, and stress.

The search for new solutions
When looking at solving these real-world problems, our joint policy brief makes specific recommendations for decision makers to consider.

“We need targeted mental health supports for parents of young children,” said Brandon Hey, MHCC Policy and Research senior analyst. “And we need interventions that reduce parental stress and support caregiving needs.”

On that score, the Wellness Together Canada portal is a great place for parents to start. Even before signing up for an account, basic information on managing anxiety for adults and children is readily available. With an account, you have access to an even broader array of resources, including evidence-based behavioural management courses, one-on-one (or group) counselling, and self-guided programs that allow you to track your state of mind.

Support starts with speaking up
Bennett, who lived with mental illness prior to the pandemic, has seen her anxiety spike. “The other day I got an alert on my activity tracker. It told me my heart rate was through the roof but had the ‘sense’ to recognize I wasn’t exercising. Sometimes a mental health problem is as obvious as a flashing alarm on your watch, yet with others it’s more insidious.”

That’s why, affirmed Hey, we need measures that address short-term challenges while also considering how to create policies that improve outcomes down the road, such as early education, child care, income supplements, and protections from discrimination.

“The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing service gaps and inequities,” he added. “The wait times are too long, the number of qualified practitioners too few, and the accountability measures too weak.”

“The struggle parents face is very real,” said Bennett. “No one does their best parenting under duress, and we know that when stress builds we run the risk of modelling less than perfect behaviour or show less than ideal coping strategies, which can have serious implications for our kids. But there is no shame at all in saying, ‘Look, I need help, I’m not OK.’”

And when people do reach out, said Hey, we need to make sure that that the right person is there to answer the call.

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