Study finds pandemic-associated traumatic stress among mothers

The COVID-19 pandemic caused sudden change and likely some amount of stress for most people in 2020. But according to a new study led by a USC Keck School of Medicine researcher, mothers who experienced changes radicals in their daily lives were particularly susceptible to experiencing pandemic-specific traumatic stress symptoms.

The research, which was published in JAMA Open Network, is the largest study to date of how mothers lived through the pandemic. The paper’s lead author, Theresa “Tracy” Bastain, PhD, MPH, an associate professor of clinical population and public health sciences at USC Keck School of Medicine, said the research team wanted to study mothers because they suffered a large part of the lost income and jobs and assumed much of the responsibility for the children’s childcare and homeschooling.

We cannot conclude from this research that these mothers will have negative mental health outcomes from the pandemic, but it does raise that concern.”

Theresa “Tracy” Bastain, PhD, MPH, associate professor of clinical population and public health sciences, USC Keck School of Medicine

High change, high stress

Researchers surveyed more than 11,000 mothers from shortly after the 2020 shutdowns through August 2021. The mothers are participating in a nationwide research study on child health and development called the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes Program, or THREW OUT. The USC Keck School of Medicine is one of several institutions participating in ECHO.

The mothers involved with ECHO, which includes diverse participants from across the United States and Puerto Rico, were asked about the changes they experienced as a result of the pandemic, such as starting to work remotely, spending less time with friends, and changing their routines. of exercise. They were also asked if they had experienced traumatic stress symptoms similar to acute stress disorder, such as insomnia, angry outbursts, or startles. In addition, they also answered questions about whether they were adopting coping mechanisms such as meditation, smoking marijuana, or drinking more alcohol.

Analyzing the responses, the research team noted that the mothers tended to fall into two groups: one that experienced high levels of disruption related to the pandemic, and a second that experienced much less change. The group of mothers who experienced the greatest change also reported experiencing more pandemic-specific traumatic stress symptoms.

an unexpected find

In raw numbers, many more mothers fell into the high-change group. Of the 11,473 respondents, only 3,061 reported little change in their daily lives, while 8,412 fell into the category of mothers experiencing major disruption.

Mothers who fell into the high change group, who experienced more traumatic stress symptoms, tended to be women with higher incomes, more education, and 66% of them were white. The group that reported little change tended to have lower education, lower income, and were primarily black and Native American. Hispanic women were split fairly evenly between the two groups.

Bastain noted that this finding was somewhat unexpected because studies have consistently documented the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality on communities of color in the US. In this case, mothers from less socioeconomically disadvantaged groups they did not suffer disproportionate levels of traumatic stress.

“It really came down to change, and those mothers whose lives carried on as they normally had, didn’t report as much stress,” Bastain said. “It was the mothers who suffered major disorders who reported the highest levels of stress.”

Potential Negative Mental Health Outcomes

A key finding from the research is that a significant percentage of the mothers surveyed said they had experienced acute stress disorder symptoms. People who develop acute stress disorder display symptoms including anxiety, mood symptoms, dissociation, or avoidance after experiencing a traumatic event, such as a global pandemic.

Some, but not all, people who develop acute stress disorder will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Bastain notes that this research demonstrates that this event could have serious long-term mental health consequences for those women who reported symptoms of acute stress disorder.

While this research focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic, Bastain added that the study points to the need for more research on the lasting health consequences of traumatic events.

“I think it shows that we need to think about traumatic experiences like natural disasters, pandemics or mass shootings in a more holistic way,” Bastain said. “There are a wide range of difficulties that people experience from these events that we need to understand in order to protect people from the long-term effects.”


Magazine reference:

Bastain, TM. et al. (2022). COVID-19 pandemic experiences and pandemic-associated traumatic stress symptoms among mothers in the US. JAMA Open Network.

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