WMU News

Poor, single moms top list when it comes to stress

Dec. 1, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- S-T-R-E-S-S -- those six small letters can weigh very heavily on people.

Whether the result of pressures at work, problems at home, lack of money, constant demands on time or some combination of them all, stress is a very real and unwelcome presence.

But perhaps no group of people feels its effects more acutely than poor, single mothers, according to new research being undertaken at Western Michigan University. In surveys of close to 700 rural and urban mothers, factors contributing to stress surfaced at alarmingly high rates, particularly among poor women.

The research, led by Dr. Marion Wijnberg, a retired WMU professor of social work, and Dr. Kathleen Reding, a retired WMU associate professor of public administration, began by examining the stressors or hassles faced by 79 mothers through open-ended, in-home interviews. The mothers were aged 18 to 45, receiving some form of state or federal assistance and had at least one child under age 16 living at home. From these interviews, researchers developed a 74-item survey tool to measure stress among 669 mothers.

Researchers currently are analyzing the data collected. But what they have found so far indicates poor, single mothers exhibit chronic stress across the 74-item scale, Wijnberg says.

"All mothers have hassles," Wijnberg says. "It doesn't matter what income level you have. But the amount of stress in your life is determined in part by the amount of money you have and the support system that you have. Poor, single mothers are lacking in both those areas."

Wijnberg and Reding began the study about five years ago with Reding conducting most of the in-home interviews. Dr. Mary Lagerwey, WMU associate professor of nursing, is now assisting Wijnberg with the study, which is being called HOME, Hassles of the Mothering Environment.

The 74-item Hassles of Mothers Scale asks respondents to rank hassles from "does not apply to me" to "a big hassle for me in the past 30 days." Hassles are defined as "irritants that can range from minor annoyances to fairly major pressures, problems or difficulties."

Pilot data shows a significant relationship between raw scores on the HOME survey and those on the CES-D, Community Epidemiological Survey-Depression, which social scientists use to measure depressive symptomatology. Combining moderate and severe estimates for depression on the CES-D revealed that more than 43.5 percent of African American respondents in the HOME survey were either moderately or severely depressed. Despite this, most poor people do not seek help from a mental health professional, Wijnberg says.

"The depressed poor do not seek help, partly because they don't recognize this as a significant health vulnerability," Wijnberg says. "And they don't want to be seen as 'crazy.'"

The top-10 hassles for the entire sample were: 1) trying to save some money; 2) making time for myself; 3) having money to buy things for myself; 4) getting enough rest and sleep; 5) never having enough time; 6) money to buy things the children want; 7) my weight; 8) getting a better paying job; 9) having money for repairs; and 10) finding time to spend with children.

Income level, however, influenced the top-10 rating. For mothers earning less than $10,000, "getting a better paying job" ranked higher, while "getting child support" and "money to buy clothes for the children" supplanted "my weight" and "finding time to spend with children." "Finding time to spend with friends" was among the top 10 for all income groups except those earning less than $10,000.

As income level went up, respondents were more likely to list chronic stressors that could be considered child well-being issues. For example, respondents earning $20,000 to $39,000 a year were more likely to list such things as "getting children to pick up after themselves," "children constantly demand attention" and "problems disciplining children."

Wijnberg finds it particularly troubling that "getting enough rest and sleep" was singled out as a top-10 stressor for all income groups.

"This is a wake-up call to the whole community and can be conceived of as a public health problem," she says. "Rest and sleep are prerequisites not only for consistent and responsive mothering, but also for job performance and for developing caring, supportive communities."

Wijnberg is concerned about what the findings might mean for children.

"A lot of research shows women with depressive symptomatology discipline their children more harshly and do not have as warm and caring relationships with their children," she says. "These mothers do not have the energy or the time to explore in detail their children's feelings or needs. That's of great concern to me."

Wijnberg says more research is needed to better understand the relationship between chronic stress and a parent's coping capacity. Meanwhile, at a time when poor, single mothers are being pushed back into the work force because of welfare reform, society needs to expand the safety net.

One strategy is to decentralize mental health workers into neighborhoods, perhaps functioning out of churches, clinics or neighborhood homes or just walking the streets. Better and clearer education in schools about the symptoms of depression and their effects also is needed.

"Depression tends to feed on itself," Wijnberg says. "If you are depressed, you may not have the energy to meet with others, go out of the house, see your minister, figure out your bills or read stories to your children."

Wijnberg suggests offering drop-in coffee clubs, starting a help line, establishing laundry clubs with babysitting in local neighborhoods and more aggressive funding of neighborhood services in general. Other strategies include improving low-income housing, offering portable employment benefits for those working less than full time, providing adequate child care and health coverage, and increasing the number of jobs with adequate incomes and a future.

Wijnberg says it is imperative that poor, depressed women be found and helped.

"It is critical to have effective screening," Wijnberg says, "so that poor, single mothers have similar options as those better off to discuss their daily frustrations and struggles, to receive medications where indicated, and to have safety valves in their lives which help to decrease the care-giving burden."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 269 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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