High stress: parenthood affects mental health especially of mothers


Parents don’t have it easy - but a JKU study shows how stressful parenthood can really be.

The study was conducted by Johannes Kepler University Linz in cooperation with Danish colleagues. It shows that parenthood significantly increases the likelihood of being prescribed antidepressants - especially for mothers.

For this purpose, a study was conducted on the basis of a quasi-experimental research design and data from Denmark and Austria were compared. We evaluated the medication prescriptions of all Upper Austrians - completely anonymized, of course," says Prof. Martin Halla, who heads the Department of Economic Policy at JKU.

Even though only Upper Austrian data were evaluated for the study, the results can be applied to the whole of Austria, as the framework conditions are very similar.

The result: In Austria, nine years after the birth of their first child, the probability of mothers being prescribed antidepressants increases by 5 percentage points due to parenthood. For men, the difference is only 2.1 percentage points. In Denmark, the picture is similar, but less pronounced. In the Northern European country, the probability of being prescribed antidepressants increases by 2.7 percentage points for women and by 0.8 percentage points for men(see Fig. 1).

It’s a kind of medical gender gap: the likelihood of women being prescribed antidepressants due to parenthood exceeds that of men by 93.2% Austria) and 64.8% (Denmark).

It has to be said that we deliberately used Denmark as an analogue country," explains Halla. Because: "According to studies, the Danes are probably the happiest people on the planet. Denmark is also probably the most progressive country when it comes to gender equality. Not only in terms of social attitudes, but also in terms of the legal and insurance framework.Austria, on the other hand, is more conservative.

Parents of all classes affected

The study also examined whether the gender differences could be explained by use of help or by postpartum depression. However, this was not the case, Halla said. Interestingly, moreover, the negative effects of parenthood are the same across most populations. For example, no differences are found between families with a child who has a high or low birth weight (which may be an indicator of poorer child health), or between families with different cultural backgrounds.

"You can see that young parents and also parents with less education are more affected," says the JKU researcher,"but overall it really runs through all strata of the population."

Long period of maternity leave puts even greater strain on mothers

In a further step, a comparison was made of the extent to which the duration of maternity leave plays a role. On the occasion of various reforms, there are always cut-off dates when maternity leave lasts longer or shorter. This has allowed us to demonstrate the effects on mental health very precisely," Halla explains. In fact, it shows that mothers who spend more time with their children after giving birth are more likely to experience mental health problems(see Figure 2). No demonstrable effect could be found on fathers.

Many levels of gender inequality

Concrete measures could not be derived from the results, but they were: "It is evident that gender equality in early childcare is far from being achieved - not even in progressive Denmark, and certainly not here." This must be taken into account when reforming parental leave regulations. It’s good that we want to help parents and especially mothers with parental leave laws, but longer parental leave periods are no advantage for mothers in particular," says Halla.

It is already well documented that women still experience massive income losses due to childbirth compared to men (,,child penalities in earnings"). This study adds that gender inequality due to parenthood, however, goes even further beyond the labor market.