Research finds stressful events impose negative effects on family members’ mental health

The Faculty of Health and Social Sciences of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) has conducted a research to examine family relationships, family resilience and individual family members’ mental health under the effects of recent stressful events (e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic, financial hardship and changes in daily life). Research findings show that core family members (father, mother and a child) exhibited negative symptoms of mental wellbeing, including stress, anxiety, depression, hopelessness and lowered satisfaction with life. Worryingly, family relationships appear to have deteriorated and conflicts within the family intensified as a result.

The research was a major initiative under the three-year project titled “Jockey Club Promoting Family Resilience Project”. Funded by The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, PolyU led the project in collaboration with four community partners: Hong Kong Children and Youth Services, Hong Kong Family Welfare Society, The Salvation Army and Tung Wah Group of Hospitals (in alphabetical order).

The Chief Principal Investigators were Dr Janet LEUNG, Associate Professor of Applied Social Sciences, PolyU and Professor Daniel SHEK, Associate Vice President (Undergraduate Programme), Chair Professor of Applied Social Sciences, and Li and Fung Professor in Service Leadership Education, PolyU. The study examined the impact of recent stressful events on family relationship and individual mental health in Hong Kong, with the aim of enhancing public awareness of family resilience.

The study surveyed 1,020 Hong Kong families from July to December 2021, including 818 (80.2%) intact families and 202 (19.8%) non-intact families. Fathers (with a mean age of 51.2), mothers (with a mean age of 46.6), and one of their children (with a mean age of 16.4 and studying in primary five to tertiary education) were interviewed.

Key findings of the study are as follows:

  • 11%-18% of the fathers, mothers and children developed psychological trauma symptoms due to the COVID-19 pandemic

  • 13%-16% of the parents and 20%-25% of the children developed psychological trauma symptoms due to social events occurring in 2019 and 2020

  • About 40% of the parents faced severe financial pressure

  • About 51% of the fathers, 40% of the mothers and 37% of the children did not receive emotional support from others when facing adversities

  • About 57%-60% of the parents and children used self-criticism as a stress coping strategy

  • About 25% of the fathers, 30% of the mothers and 30% of the children exhibited moderate to severe levels of negative emotions

  • About 25% of the fathers, 28% of the mothers and 30% of the children indicated that there were more family conflicts

  • Financial stress was generally higher among mothers than fathers

  • Children were more traumatised by social events and the pandemic situation than their parents

  • Children reported more negative emotions and sense of hopelessness than their parents

  • The greater the psychological trauma that parents faced due to stressful events, changes in daily life and financial concerns, the worse the family resilience, marital satisfaction, parent-child relationship, life satisfaction and self-efficacy; while they expressed greater parental psychological control and parent-child conflict, more negative emotions and higher sense of hopelessness

  • The greater the psychological trauma due to stressful events that the children faced, the worse the family resilience, life satisfaction and individual resilience; while they expressed more negative emotions and higher sense of hopelessness

  • Recent stressful events contributed to anxiety, depression and sense of hopelessness among parents

  • Psychological trauma caused by recent stressful events, contributed to greater anxiety and depression, and higher sense of hopelessness among children

  • Psychological trauma in parents and children induced by stressful events would affect the negative emotions and mental health of other family members

  • Family resilience could reduce the negative impacts of stressful events on mental health problems among family members.

Dr Leung pointed out that family relationships and individual mental wellbeing among respondent families were generally affected by recent stressful events and the pandemic, but family resilience served as a buffer against these impacts. As such, it is important to promote family resilience in order for family members to be better able to support each other during adversities.

Professor Shek suggested that families should cultivate an environment of mutual support, sharing and collaborative problem-solving. In addition, couples and family members should be open and frank with each other to strengthen communication.

Under the “Jockey Club Promoting Family Resilience Project”, PolyU helps families build positive family beliefs, promote mutual support and enhance collaborative problem-solving skills to enhance family resilience. The project also assesses the effectiveness of the activities using evidence-based methods.

PolyU will also launch the “Jockey Club Promoting Family Resilience Project” e-learning certificate course specially designed to promote family resilience. The target audiences are parents, social workers, teachers and members of the general public. The course is free of charge. For details, please call 3400 8513.

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