Isolation, childcare and shortage of support: The impact of Covid-19 on young women’s mental health
The UK is beginning to emerge from lockdown restrictions and we are all finding our feet within this changed landscape. Whether this is the post-Covid world or the eye of a greater storm, discussions are being held about the fallout and how the government can support people going forward. One group that must not be left behind are young women who are already disadvantaged in terms of their health and employment. In this series of blogs, I speak to the Young Women’s Trust (YWT) about how Covid-19 and lockdown has affected young women’s mental health, financial stability, and access to employment.
There are numerous mental health implications of living through the Covid-19 pandemic. Anxiety about catching the virus, lockdown isolation and the easing of restrictions, increased caring responsibilities, managing home-working pressures, financial stress, or an overwhelming concoction of these factors has contributed to a national increase in mental health issues.
Research showed that by April 2020 the UK population prevalence of clinically significant levels of mental distress rose by 8.4 per cent compared to pre-Covid 19 levels (Pierce et al, 2020). Mental health scores also increased at a higher rate than would have been expected from previous upward trajectories between 2016–2019. The analysis showed that being young, a woman, and having dependent children had a strong influence on the extent to which mental health deteriorated during the lockdown.
I discussed these issues with Georgie Whiteley, Research Lead at YWT, who explained that the trust has evidence of longer-standing issues in respect of young women’s mental health.
YWT’s research last year — before Covid-19 took hold — found that over half of young women were worried about their mental health, and that had risen by 13 per cent since 2016. For young women the main drivers of poor mental health were work, money pressures, relationships and sexism. Now, the Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating these issues. In YWT’s recent survey albeit with a smaller sample of 200 women, 73 per cent said they have experienced an increase in stress or anxiety because of Covid-19.
Young women have been facing enormous pressure since lockdown began: they are disproportionately likely to work in the sectors that have been worst affected, and are facing job loss and financial difficulties as a result (IFS, 2020). On top of this, mothers are struggling to manage childcare, be educators, and work in parallel. Furthermore, women in employment are twice as likely to be key workers as employed men, facing significant health risks (IFS, 2020). Amidst all these challenges, YWT found that many young women are feeling lonely because they are separated from loved ones and their support networks.
Despite all this, many mental health services have been paused or reduced since lockdown began. As a result, some of the young women we work with have been unable to access the mental health support that they desperately need.
Iulia, 29 years old, shares her experiences:
Like many women my age, I have been battling depression and anxiety for most of my 20s and the current situation is having a stronger impact on my mental health than I anticipated. At the beginning of 2020, I was placed in a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program run by the NHS. When the lockdown was announced, my therapist called to say I was going to be prematurely discharged as the staff were being redirected to services deemed more necessary during the Covid-19 crisis.
The lockdown has had a huge impact on my finances, my family dynamics and, consequently, on my mental health. I decided to move in with my mother to save on rent and support her as she is an NHS employee. When I was furloughed in May, suddenly I had nothing to do. With each day passing it became more of a struggle to get out of bed, so I contacted my doctor and asked for medication since therapy was not available. I had been avoiding medication for years as I have a number of chronic diseases and the side effects of antidepressants are more likely to gravely affect me. This has been one of the hardest decisions of my life.
I am now a month into my medication and I am more able to cope. I have just been made redundant and I am looking for my next role. I am concerned about my future finances, the wellbeing of my mum, that I will not be able to get the mental health support I need and I will have to stay medicated for a long time. I hope I’ll be able to get back to work soon and resume my life.
The mental health of young women needs particular attention as part of the national response. However, youth and adult mental health support services were unable to meet demand even before the pandemic. With needs increasing, unless services can respond, there are risks for the young generations’ wellbeing and life-time outcomes. Mental health service provision has to be part of the national recovery plan; and it needs to be accessible, cost-free, and effective. Progress made in offering online support during the crisis should not be lost. An online system also offers benefits in terms of accessibility and flexibility which can be valuable, particularly for young women who are juggling childcare, working irregular hours or without access to travel.
As many people return to work, their employers’ role is ever more important in ensuring the wellbeing of their staff is well-managed through open and supportive conversations. For some people, homeworking may have been beneficial for managing their mental health and employers can be supportive by continuing to offer flexibility. However, considering the existing disparities in pay and progression between men and women, where flexible working is offered, companies should not lose sight of young women’s access to reward, recognition, development, and progression. Managers should regularly discuss opportunities for homeworkers to develop, such as mentoring, and make sure they are not excluded from training or promotions because of their flexible or remote working patterns. (Acas, 2014).
The disproportionate financial effect of the pandemic on young women is also contributing to their lower mental health. The impact of the pandemic on young women’s financial security and what could be done to relieve these pressures is a topic that we will discuss further next week.
Young Women’s Trust is a feminist organisation working to achieve economic justice for young women.
Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.