It’s stressful being a parent – and the strain caused by the pandemic has arguably made it even worse. But when does that stress turn into a real mental health problem?
New research by youth mental health charity stem4 has found 86% of parents say the effect of lockdowns, pressures of homeschooling, fears of becoming ill and pandemic work and financial difficulties have left them feeling overwhelmed, unable to cope, and lacking balance in their life.
“Particularly for parents, there’s a huge worry you’re not coping in the way you should, and the biggest reason parents don’t seek help is because they feel they’re making a fuss,” says consultant clinical psychologist Dr. Nihara Krause, founder of stem4.
“There’s also the parental guilt of not holding everything together. But if a parent has mental ill health, it impacts the children, and they’ll pick it up.
They need parents as role models to show them how they’re putting it right. Apart from a problem shared is a problem halved, there are so many good mental health treatments these days, it would be sad not to access them. Definitely don’t let the stigma hold you back.”
The stem4 research found four in 10 parents admit they’re in mental health distress, with some saying they’re suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout and more.
However, 44% of those in distress haven’t asked for help, either because they don’t want to make a fuss (46%), they feel ashamed (30%), they don’t want to upset their family (22%) or have their family think less of them (23%). And of the 56% who have asked for help, just half are receiving treatment.
So how can you tell if your mental distress isn’t just a normal part of parenting, and you may need some help? “If it’s bringing about a big change – so if it’s new, lasting a long time, and if it’s having a negative impact on you,” explains Krause.
These are some symptoms you might want to watch out for…
1. Sleep problems
“If you have a new sleep issue – you may be getting up in the early hours of the morning – and it’s been going on for a couple of weeks and stopping you from feeling positive, then it might be worth thinking about whether something’s emerging that might impact your mental health,” says Krause.
2. Burnout symptoms
These can occur as a result of juggling several roles – including that of a parent, explains Krause.
Symptoms include feeling exhausted, irritable and overwhelmed, or noticing reduced productivity and an inability to meet the demands of daily work and life.
3. Eating changes
There may be changes to your eating patterns, such as binge eating or restricting food.
4. Mood changes
Parents may experience low moods, apathy or negative feelings about the future. While this can be something everyone experiences at some point, if it’s lasting and negatively affects your life, it may be time to seek help, suggests Krause.
“When things are out of balance, our perspective often changes, too.
If your outlook has become overly negative or ‘worst-case scenario’ focused, dial down worst-case thinking to thoughts that have less negative consequences,” she says.
5. Excessive anger
It’s normal to get angry or frustrated when you’re a parent, but Krause says you may need help if you constantly find it difficult to manage your emotions, and you’re aware your anger is excessive.
6. Increased drinking or drug use
If you’re using alcohol or drugs as a crutch to help you deal with the stress of parenting, clearly that’s not helpful to you or your children. Krause suggests any increase in risky behaviours may need addressing.
7. Suicidal feelings and self-harm
Such feelings should always be dealt with, and Krause says: “Talk to someone you feel close to about how you feel.
Admitting to feeling out of balance is often a relief, and can help challenge feelings of failure.”
She adds: “If nothing you try works, then reach out… Have a conversation with your GP, or occupational health [adviser] at work.”
For information on mental health support, contact the Mind infoline on 0300 123 3393.