While COVID-19 undoubtedly impacted the personal and professional lives of most people, it further amplified certain gender-based disparities affecting women that have existed well before the pandemic began. According to a 2016 SAMHSA survey, in the United States, an estimated 65% of caregivers were women. Caregivers are those providing routine support to children, elderly adults, or people with a chronic illness or disability. In a 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) survey, more than 1 in 10 women reported caring for a family member requiring special assistance before the pandemic, and 12% of women responded that they had taken on new or additional responsibilities as a caregiver due to the pandemic.
School/daycare closures and students’ distance learning from home have complicated (to say the least) working mothers’ ability to attend to their professional duties. Some working mothers with children under 18 have had to reduce their work hours, take unpaid time off, or quit their jobs during COVID, often in part to support their children’s education and supervision. In juggling these new and increased responsibilities, it comes as no surprise that caregivers, who already stand at greater risk for depression and anxiety, have felt an added burden. In the same KFF survey mentioned above, over 50% of mothers with school-age children endorsed pandemic-related stress affecting their mental health. “Ensuring the safety, success and health of another person is a lot of responsibility,” says Dr. Sweeney, a clinical psychiatrist at the OHSU Center for Women’s Health. “You’re always on call, there aren’t many breaks, and caregiving can be lonely.” Only 16% of mothers in the study had pursued mental health treatment.
Caregiver stress and burnout can look and feel like the onset or worsening of depressive and anxious symptoms, including excessive worry, sadness, poor concentration, a sense of isolation from others, and changes in sleep. It can also compromise the treatment those in their care receive. Caregivers may experience feelings of guilt when it comes to caring for themselves or making time to meet with their own primary care doctor/mental health provider to evaluate their physical and psychiatric needs. In addition to self-care and accessing professional treatment, it can also be practical to utilize community-based resources, like accepting the help offered by friends and family, eliciting their help, respite care, and caregiver support networks and groups. Taking care of ourselves before we can help others isn’t just the “oxygen mask theory,” but a value that should be instilled into our society.