COVID-19 took a mental health toll on mothers, young women and adolescent girls: Researchers

“The current road towards pandemic recovery needs to consider these at-risk populations. If not, there could be dire long-term consequences for the current generation and ones to come”
A mother consoles her adolesent daughter

(photo by skynesher/Getty Images)

Two new studies supported by the Institute for Pandemics – a University of Toronto institutional strategic initiative – show that the non-pharmaceutical public health measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic were associated with increased mental health visits for mothers with young children, young women and adolescent girls.

As governments around the world imposed public health measures to reduce viral transmission, including stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, and school closures, experts raised concerns about the potential lasting impact on the mental health of individuals, especially those belonging to vulnerable and at-risk populations.

In particular, mothers with young children faced obstacles related to parenting and caregiving, while young women and adolescent girls experienced major disruptions to school, social and daily routines.

The new studies – which built on previous research showing the COVID-19 pandemic had a larger impact on the mental health of men compared to women – aimed to examine how these pandemic-related non-pharmaceutical interventions have impacted the mental health of these groups.

“This work raises concerns about how to contain and address this issue,” says Geoffrey Anderson, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health’s Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation (IHPME) and lead of the pandemic recovery theme at the Institute for Pandemics.

“The current road towards pandemic recovery needs to consider these at-risk populations. If not, there could be dire long-term consequences for the current generation and ones to come.”

The research team also included: John Moin, a former post-doctoral researcher funded by the Institute for Pandemics; Shauna Brail, an associate professor at U of T Mississauga who directs the Institute for Management & Innovation; and Simone Vigod, head of the department of psychiatry at Women’s College Hospital and a professor in the department of psychiatry in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. 

Both studies compared rates of doctor visits for mental health care in the pre-pandemic period from March 2016 to March 2020 to rates during the pandemic from April 2020 to November 2021.

The first, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) Open, found a rapid increase in doctor visits by mothers of young children for mental health care during the pandemic compared to the pre-pandemic period, with most of the care for mood, anxiety, depressive disorders and alcohol and substance abuse.

In the second study, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) Open, the team found an increase in doctor visits for adolescent girls and women aged 14 to 24 for mental health care largely driven by care for mood, anxiety and depressive disorders. Additionally, there was an increase in hospital visits for eating disorders for adolescent girls and women aged 14 to 19.  There was no increase in doctor visits or hospitalizations for boys or young men. 

Both studies show that the implementation of public health measures during the pandemic was associated with increased usage of mental health services among mothers of young children, young women and adolescent girls, and point to potential lessons for future public health crises.

“Our research raises concerns about the mental health impacts of public health measures on vulnerable women,” says Anderson. “We need to address these impacts as key part of any effective and equitable pandemic recovery strategy and we need to pay more attention to these consequences in future public health crises”.

"We saw the rapid and ongoing application of non-pharmaceutical interventions as public health measures throughout the pandemic,” says Moin, who was the lead author of both studies. “We also now know that they were associated with abrupt and prolonged changes in the utilization of mental health services. This association should be considered for future public health planning and strategy.”

Renzo Calderon, another post-doctoral fellow funded by the Institute for Pandemics, is leading a team that is further exploring this observed trend.

Despite nearly four years having passed since the beginning of the restrictions, the pandemic continues to alter the landscape of mental health. Hence, the researchers’ focus is not solely on exploring the overarching trends but also on better understanding if there are specific socio-demographic groups of women who were particularly affected.

Preliminary results indicate that the demand for mental health services around specific issues such as eating disorders and substance abuse, especially among young women, has not yet diminished.

Such a targeted approach aims to uncover nuanced insights into how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these problems and lead to more effective interventions.