Opinion & Debate

Published on December 13th, 2013 | by Kelly Rose Bradford


Working single mums less likely to suffer depression

A study has found that single mums who work are less likely to suffer from depression.

The Institute for Policy Research at Bath University discovered that depression among lone mothers in work fell from 32% to 23% between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, but increased from 33% to 41% among those not in work.

The study was led by Dr Susan Harkness and was undertaken in partnership with single parents’ charity Gingerbread.

Dr Harkness and her team used quantitative data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) to examine the changing relationship between work and mental health for lone mothers between 1993 and 1998, and 2003 to 2008, while Gingerbread conducted interviews with mums who had some experience of poor mental health.

They found a ‘positive association between mental health and work’ that did not exist in the mid-90s, when there was no difference in the rate of depression between lone mothers with jobs and those without.

By 2008, the mental health of single mums in work had improved to such an extent that there was little difference between them and those mums in a relationship.

The researchers attribute the change to a series of policies such as tax credits and the New Deal for Lone Parents which were introduced in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These benefits  made it easier for single mums to better manage the balance between work and childcare, resulting in their employment rate increasing from 42% to 57% .

The study found the positive association between work and improved mental health remained evident after taking other differences between working and non-working lone mothers in to account – such as their age, the age of the children and their level of education.

The researchers also discovered that being able to achieve a satisfactory balance between work and childcare was more important than earnings or career prospects in terms of reducing the risk of depression.

However, Dr Harkness said that although the study found a ‘positive association’ between employment and mental health, work in itself was not sufficient enough to reduce the risk of depression.

“The important question is what has changed more broadly in our society over this time to enable both the increase in employment for lone mothers and the associated improvements in mental health,” she said.

Teresa Williams from the Nuffield Foundation added that although the improvements in mental health among lone mothers who work is good news, she did not know if it was sustainable.

“If political and economic changes since 2008 make it more difficult for lone mothers to balance work and home life then we may see a reversal of this trend,” she said. “We also need to address the needs of those not in work, who have seen their mental well-being deteriorate over the same period.”

The report is published by the Nuffield Foundation and can be downloaded here.




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About the Author

Kelly Rose Bradford

is a London-based journalist and broadcaster, writing for the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Sunday Telegraph, and a host of women's magazines. Her robust opinions and feisty debating skills make her in demand as a social commentator, regularly guesting on ITV's This Morning programme, and across many radio stations, including 5 Live and BBC Radio London.

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