Being a new parent is stressful — both anecdotal and scientific evidence says as much. But what happens when parents of young children also face major depression and bills they can’t pay?
According to a new University of Nebraska-Lincoln study, families facing economic hardships or mental health challenges in the early years of their children’s lives are likely to continue to struggle for years and experience high familial stress.
Deadric Williams, a UNL family sociologist and the study’s lead author, said economic conditions and mental health problems in parents have long-term consequences for their children’s well-being. His research demonstrates the need for family-friendly policies that promote strong relationships, economic fortitude and mental health.
Using data from a national longitudinal survey of 4,898 children and parents, the study suggests young parents who experience economic hardship early in their children’s lives are more likely to experience mental health problems and relationship distress.
“Early hardship is associated with later depression and early depression is associated with later hardship, particularly among mothers, and over time. By the time of their child’s fifth birthday, economic hardship and depression is also shaping relationship distress, which means that parents are contemplating leaving their relationship,” Williams said.
Williams’ approach is novel in looking at economic hardship and mental health within two-parent families.
“There is overwhelming evidence that single-parent families – usually mothers – are having hard economic times, which leads to poor health outcomes for themselves and their children, but I wanted to see if a similar process was happening for people who were in committed relationships – if maybe researchers are missing something among couples,” he said.
The study was published in the July issue of Society and Mental Health. Williams was surprised that his findings did not vary between married and cohabiting couples. That’s important because many policies and programs already exist to promote marriage; the study’s results should give policymakers pause when thinking about how to best serve working families.
“If you were experiencing economic hardship, it was going to contribute to your mental health and the health of your relationship, regardless of marital status,” Williams said. “Marriage isn’t a magic elixir.”
Instead, he said, policies need to promote economic well-being, mental health care and relationship health at the same time.
“If we really care about families, we have to care about their economic conditions and mental health, but not separately, because they are not mutually exclusive,” Williams said.
Policies like paid family leave for both mothers and fathers after a baby’s birth or quality, affordable day care would make a difference for disadvantaged families and would have a lasting impact on children.
“If you put children in better economic situations, both parents not only have the resources for themselves, but they also can contribute to their children’s well-being,” he said. “We know that children who grow up in homes in better economic conditions, there’s better health, better educational outcomes, better emotional outcomes – a ton of positive things.”