Wealthier children experienced the steepest decline in mental health during the pandemic, research suggests.
Children’s mental health worsened across the board in the UK during the pandemic. But those whose parents were highly educated, employed, stayed together and had high incomes suffered sharper falls in mental health than those who were less well off.
The findings, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, show the gap between the mental health of the poorest and richest children narrowed during the pandemic.
The authors of the research cited a range of potential reasons for their findings. One was parents juggling highly paid work with looking after children and educating them while schools were closed.
“This strain, which has been linked to parent distress levels, may plausibly have been greatest for families with employed parents who needed to balance childcare against their paid work,” they said.
“Moreover, the intense pressures and increased risk of Covid infection faced by essential (key) workers in this period may have placed further strain on some families with employed parents.
“For example, studies in Brazil and Bangladesh have shown that children whose parents worked in essential roles, and were unable to work from home, experienced worse mental health during the pandemic.
“We speculate that these excess pressures faced by some working parents, who were required to balance childcare and paid work during the pandemic, may have contributed to the poorer mental health of children with employed parents during the pandemic compared with before.”
The study looked at data for 9,272 children as part of the UK Household Longitudinal Study.
The mental health of young people was reported by parents using a standardised questionnaire when the children were aged five to eight between 2011 and 2019. Details of mental health were also recorded when they were aged five to 11 in July 2020, September 2020 and March 2021 – all during the pandemic.
The results showed that wealthier children experienced steeper declines in their mental health during the pandemic than more disadvantaged children, who tended to have lower mental health to begin with.
For example, the average difference in child scores between those whose parents were unemployed compared with those whose parents were employed was 2.35 points before the pandemic but fell to 0.02 points during the pandemic – meaning the inequalities narrowed.
The researchers cautioned that there were limitations to their research, but added: “Our study provides evidence that trends in child mental health have continued to worsen during the pandemic.
“Unexpectedly, in many cases children from traditionally advantaged groups saw larger declines than children from disadvantaged groups – that is, child mental health has become more equal but at a worse overall level.
“The pattern is contrary to predictions from some child health experts that the financial and emotional strain of lockdowns would fall hardest on children with parents in unstable employment, living in overcrowded housing, with less access to outdoor space and educational resources.
“We speculate that social isolation and reduced access to services during the Covid-19 pandemic brought the experiences of traditionally advantaged groups closer to those already faced by children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and/or that emergency income support measures during the pandemic may have eased the economic burden for disadvantaged families.”
A separate report, by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, suggests the poorest third of families in England will see almost no direct benefit from the government’s new expanded childcare entitlements.
By September 2025, children in working families will be entitled to up to 30 hours a week of funded term-time care from the age of nine months until the start of school – a dramatic scaling up from the current provision which provides funded places for three- and four-year-olds in working families.
However, the policy expansion continues the trend of neglecting families in the bottom 30% of income distribution, the IFS said. So while the new offer will benefit overall just over half of parents with a child aged between nine months and two years, that will include just a fifth of families earning less than £20,000 a year, but four-fifths of families with household incomes above £45,000.
A government spokesperson said: “As well as announcing the biggest ever expansion to free childcare for working parents, we have also almost doubled childcare support for the most financially vulnerable and by 2027-28 we expect to be spending £8bn a year to help parents with affordable childcare.”