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Pandemic Takes a Toll on Women’s Mental Health

Woman sitting on her bed looking depressed

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Key Takeaways

  • The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health, especially for women.
  • The combined pressure of job loss and familial responsibility has increased stress.
  • Juggling family responsibilities is a source of stress for both women who are in the workforce and for those who are not.

The pandemic has caused loss, stress, and unemployment for people all over the world. However, women—mothers in particular—are experiencing the effects to a higher degree.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.5 million women left the job market since the beginning of the pandemic—compared to 1.8 million men—as they take on more responsibilities of homeschooling and everyday parenting.

Vanessa Kennedy, PhD, director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery, says this has to do with factors revolving around cultural perceptions and expectations.

“While women are generally perceived to be the more ‘nurturing’ sex and perhaps better suited to provide childcare and care for the home, this is largely related to entrenched cultural ideas about gender roles,” Kennedy tells Verywell.

These perceptions have put undue pressure on women during the pandemic, leading to excess stress and the exacerbation of associated mental health conditions.

Women and Mental Health During COVID

CARE International conducted a report based on first-person accounts of more than 10,000 participants’ views of the challenges faced by women during COVID-19.

The study found that 27% of women reported an increase in challenges associated with mental illness, compared to only 10% of men. Women especially point to skyrocketing unpaid care burdens as a source of this stress, in addition to worries about livelihoods, food, and health care.

According to the study findings, women are also nearly twice as likely to report difficulty accessing quality health services.

Burden of Responsibility

“The extra toll on women's mental health makes sense given what we know about how many women have had to leave the workforce in order to care for children or other family members at home, or are dealing with an impossible and constant juggling act of kids, plus career, plus other responsibilities,” says Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD, head of research at the Mental Health Coalition.

With the build-up of responsibilities, like homeschooling or caring for sick relatives, she says it becomes harder for women to care for themselves, which in turn affects their mental health.

Kennedy agrees, noting that multitasking leads to less efficiency and quality in each role, and takes time away from self-care. “Hence, mental health concerns among women, in particular, have been on the rise,” she says.

For women who are pregnant or new moms during the pandemic, isolation can be especially difficult, adds Torres-Mackie.

“The perinatal time is one where moms-to-be and new moms most need care themselves, and it can be difficult to get that right now. Also, this period itself puts women at risk for mental health conditions (e.g., major depressive disorder with peripartum onset), so that combined with pandemic-related stress is a difficult combination to manage,” she says.

For those struggling with anxiety, depression, substance use or other mental illnesses, Kennedy says you are not alone.

“Help is available, and part of rebuilding a sense of balance is taking even a little sliver of time to care for oneself during an unprecedented experience of social isolation, prolonged strain, and possible grief,” she says.

Ongoing Inequality of the Sexes

A Pew Research Center study from 2017, suggested that 53% of American adults say that society places more value on contributions men make at work versus at home. Only 5% said that society values contributions men make at home more than at work, and 41% said that equal value is placed on men's contributions in both contexts.

“Thus, there tends to be a degree of societal pressure placed on men to be successful at work as opposed to conquering their role as a parent or home keeper,” Kennedy says. 

Vanessa Kennedy, PhD

While women are generally perceived to be the more ‘nurturing’ sex and perhaps better suited to provide childcare and care for the home, this is largely related to entrenched cultural ideas about gender roles.

— Vanessa Kennedy, PhD

However, this perception does appear to be changing. The view that family caregiving responsibilities fall mainly on women is common among women ages 30 and up. Only 45% of women ages 18 to 29 believe this to be true, with 51% of women in this age group feeling that caregiving responsibilities are shared equally between men and women.

Still, inequality in pay between the genders presents a challenge. The United States Census Bureau stated in 2018, that women made approximately 82 cents to every dollar that men earned.

“That said, women earning lower wages than their male counterparts were found to have been more likely to take leave from their jobs or create hybrid schedules balancing career responsibilities with childcare and virtual schooling,” says Kennedy.

Job loss in itself is a mental health stressor with the American Psychological Association, reporting that unemployment is known to negatively impact depression, anxiety, and loss of life satisfaction.

For women who hope to regain employment lost during the pandemic, this poses additional worry about the future.

“This is especially the case for women who have additional financial responsibilities like children. Worry about the future is a main component of anxiety, so it would make sense that trying to go back to work after losing your job or leaving it to care for kids would create worry and anxiety,” says Torres-Mackie.

The Challenge of Juggling Work and Caregiving

For women who remain in the workforce, the stress of multi-tasking has increased.

“We have come a long way in terms of gender equity, but we certainly still have a ways to go before true equity is reached in the U.S. The fact that many women hold most of the responsibility for childcare and housework while maintaining careers is reflective of that,” Torres-Mackie says.

Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD

A sense of ‘role strain’ among women who are tasked with juggling many roles at once can lead to higher levels of stress and less satisfaction in life for women.

— Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD

While this dynamic often occurs because women choose to take on these roles, Torres-Mackie says it often unfolds because of the expectations of others or having no other choice.

“A sense of ‘role strain’ among women who are tasked with juggling many roles at once can lead to higher levels of stress and less satisfaction in life for women,” she says. “Women, in many ways, are still seen as the nurturing, domestic gender, and they end up being overworked across roles because of this stereotype.”

Women Take on the Task of Vaccine Appointments

In addition to responsibilities related to children, now that COVID-19 vaccines are available, many women are taking charge of getting vaccine appointments for their parents. And while being tasked with caring for others is always difficult, Torres-Mackie says it is especially challenging during high-stress situations like the pandemic.

“Holding the responsibility for finding vaccine appointments for parents and other family members is a major responsibility. As women are often [inclined] to blame themselves when something goes wrong, the self-blame around not being able to find vaccines for family members can be really difficult,” she says.

The logistics of getting vaccine appointments scheduled adds additional stress.

“Experiencing the frustrations of getting on waitlists or watching their parents' disappointment when they do not receive a call to get the vaccine and navigating hoops to jump through can be infuriating and scary," says Kennedy. "Women are feeling the pressure of responsibility for their parents' health—both physical and mental."

What This Means For You

Women are feeling mental health effects of the pandemic to a higher degree than men due to job loss and the pressures of balancing work and family responsibilities. If you feel you are struggling with your mental health, there is no shame in reaching out to your doctor or a mental health professional for support.

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.  Updates March 5, 2021.

  2. CARE International. Financial Insecurity, Hunger, Mental Health are Top Concerns for Women Worldwide - CARE. March 5, 2021.

  3. Horowitz J, Parker K, Graf N, et al. Gender and Caregiving. Pew Research Center. March 23, 2017.

  4. Leisenring M.  Women Still Have to Work Three Months Longer to Equal What Men Earned in a Year. United States Census Bureau. March 31, 2020.

  5. Pappas S. The toll of job loss. American Psychological Association. October 1, 2020.