Black dog bites single mothers hardest

Sydney Morning Herald
March 20, 2006

By Julie Robotham Medical Editor

SINGLE mothers have much worse mental health than other women, a survey of 20,000 women has found. It also suggests financial difficulties make this group highly vulnerable - even before the Federal Government's coming reform of their welfare payments.

Regardless of whether they had children, women without partners were consistently more likely to be clinically depressed, taking antidepressant medication or admitting to suicidal thoughts, according to the first large-scale Australian survey to examine the links between women's family circumstances and their psychological wellbeing.

But compared with single women without children, lone mothers came off worse on all the same measures, said the nation-wide survey, which was divided into two groups: women in their mid 20s and those in their late 40s to early 50s.

Half of the younger single mothers were measurably depressed, and one in 10 was taking antidepressant drugs, the University of Newcastle study, published today in the Medical Journal of Australia, found.

They were twice as likely to be experiencing suicidal thoughts, and three times as likely to have deliberately hurt themselves in the previous six months compared with women who had a partner but no children.

Single mothers who were as financially secure as those bringing up their children with a partner were still more likely to be depressed, but the gap was considerably narrower - suggesting precarious finances might be a big contributor to the distress experienced by women bringing up children alone.

The results come as the Federal Government prepares to introduce tougher welfare tests for single mothers, set to begin in July. Under the proposal, sole parents who apply for the Parenting Payment would have to seek work once their youngest child turned six, or risk being transferred to lower unemployment benefits.

The project manager of the respected Australian Longitudinal Study on Women's Health, Deborah Loxton, has analysed the new results as part of her work.

"One of our main aims in publishing this research at this point is to raise awareness in the community about what sole mothers are experiencing psychologically.

"When we think about them going into the paid workforce, we need to keep in mind that they are more likely to have these problems," which might affect their ability to successfully find and keep a job, Dr Loxton said. "We need to think about them as individuals."

She said she had been surprised at how much worse the mental health of the single mothers was, especially for the most serious markers such as thinking of suicide and self-harming.

"I didn't expect it to be that distinct," Dr Loxton said. "It caused me some concern as a human being."

She will now compare data from a later wave of the survey to see how the women have fared over time, as their children have grown up and as they have moved in and out of relationships.

The president of the Sole Parents Union, Kathleen Swinbourne, welcomed the study, which she said would provide a scientific basis on which to fight welfare reforms that threaten payments to single parents - mainly mothers.

"This is what we have been trying to tell governments for years," Ms Swinbourne said.


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