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Study: Paid Parental Leave Protects The Mental Health Of Parents

A new study provides yet another reason to pass federal, job-protected paid parental leave in the United States ASAP.

Father Having Fun With Baby Son In Living Room
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Findings from a new study add to a mounting pile of evidence confirming something that parents around the world already know: Parental leave, especially paid parental leave, is beneficial to parents in many more ways than one. A new meta-analysis, published in The Lancet, added to the evidence that paid parental leave is a deeply important policy with findings that parental leave protected parents, especially mothers, against developing mental health issues.

For the study, a research team from the Department of Public Health Sciences at Stockholm University and the Department of Global Public Health at Karolinska Institute in Sweden examined data from 45 previous studies on the benefits of parental leave.

They found that incidences of mental health issues such as depression, psychological distress, and burnout declined in cultures with generous parental leave packages. The benefits were especially pronounced in mothers, and the team found that the benefits outlasted the post-partum period and extended into later life.

“This is the most comprehensive systematic review on this topic to date. We have looked for a connection between different aspects of parental leave, such as length of leave and whether leave was paid or unpaid, and their associations with mental health in both mothers and fathers. We even investigated the indirect effect of one parent taking parental leave on their partner’s mental health,” said doctoral candidate and lead author Amy Heshmati in a release for the findings.

“However, the beneficial effects are associated with more generous parental leave schemes, for example with longer duration of leave,” added Heshmati.

The U.S. lags behind the rest of the world regarding parental leave, with most Americans receiving zero paid time off after the birth or adoption of a child. Previous research has found that the U.S. ranks dead last out of 197 countries (i.e., the rest of the countries in the entire world) when it comes to paid leave. Most other countries have federally mandated paid leave ranging from a matter of days up to a month each year in addition to parental leave for new parents. The United States does not.

Unsurprisingly, this lack of stability after the birth or adoption of a child contributes to financial stress. Many times, parents return to work within weeks of giving birth, which can affect everything from breastfeeding to physical health and mental health to budgetary concerns like additional expenses for child care.

There has been a cultural shift over the last several years with U.S. corporations developing more generous parental leave parents as a perk to obtain and retain new hires. But so far, there has been little movement at the federal level to ensure parents are guaranteed leave. President Biden attempted to enact a federal paid leave policy as part of his Build Back Better plan but was stymied by Congressional Republicans, citing cost and concerns about public dependency on government support.

Since the federal government can’t (or won't) agree on how best to provide time for parents to recover from childbirth and not worry about losing their jobs, homes, or minds in the process, some states are stepping up to the plate. Oregon residents recently began paying into a new paid leave program that will provide up to 12 weeks of leave to care for themselves or a family member.

Along with Oregon, other states that provide state-mandated paid leave include: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia.