The final blog post in our series on women's mental health, ahead of our upcoming conference, is from our intern Esther, and looks at the impact that being a single parent can have on mental health.
In the past couple of decades, family structures have transformed from the conventional two-parent family, to lone parent families. Today, there are roughly 2.9 million single parents in the UK, an increase of 18.6% since 1996. Yet, 90% of lone parent households are headed by women. Whilst state provisions have attempted to cater for these new trends - such as through the introduction of 30 hours free childcare - single parents face many challenges.
Societal constructs have deeply embedded the stigmatisation of single mothers, perceiving them as young, irresponsible and unemployed. From senior MPs to mainstream media, single parents are frequently blamed for all kinds of tribulations. However, such stereotypes are wholly unfounded in contemporary British society. Only 1% of single parents are teenagers, with the average age being 38 years-old. Further, 70% of single mothers are in paid employment. Paradoxically, despite employment among single mothers in the UK being nearly twice as high than co-habiting or married women, single mothers are nearly twice as likely to be in poverty.
Financial hardship is perhaps the most conspicuous factor correlating with poor mental health amongst lone parents. A study conducted by Stack and Meredith (2017) investigated the impact of financial penury on the wellbeing of 15 single parents. The participants interviewed discussed the sacrifices they had to make to ensure their child’s basic needs were met, and the difficulties surrounding both fuel and food poverty. Feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety and even suicide were cited. One participant said: ‘I really need to do some food shopping, but I’ve got £4… I’ve just had sleepless nights… full of tears’. Such desperation epitomises the hellish destitution many single parents face.
The isolation that follows financial hardship is also described: ‘If we decide to go to the park with a friend, they might get a treat or go for a coffee… I just don’t have three pounds to do that, so we’ll just stay at home and do things ourselves’. Lack of financial resources prevents single parents from participating in society, considered a form of poverty using Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach. The stress, stigmatisation and loneliness caused a few participants to contemplate suicide: ‘I would have killed myself, I know, because I thought about it many times.’.
It is not surprising, therefore, that single parents have been shown to experience higher levels of depression, chronic stress and loneliness than their married counterparts. Yet, efforts to support single parents with poor mental health have been largely ineffective. In Stack and Meredith’s study, participants discuss how counselling services or other mental health support has had little bearing on their mental well-being. The authors find that ‘psychological services are not able to take the needs of single parents into account’. Until the root of their anxieties are resolved, namely financial hardship, any means of support is futile. With single parent families only increasing, we must integrate welfare support systems and mental health services to fully understand, and treat, the problems faced by single parents.
If you are a single parent struggling with some of the issues covered in this article, you can find support from Gingerbread, a charity supporting single-parent families, at www.gingerbread.org.uk.