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Image Credit: Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Over the past year and a half, there’s been a lot of research into COVID-19 and the different ways it has affected our lives. In particular, mental health impacts are receiving more attention from researchers as we gain more understanding of the pandemic’s wider impacts.

A team from UC Irvine in California is looking at the existing research on the mental health impacts of the pandemic. Unfortunately, they found that earlier studies conducted in this area have been few in number and poor in quality because of their sample populations.

In research, it is important to ensure the study participants you are using are truly representative of the population you are assessing.  For example, you wouldn’t accept the results of a study that only included people from one town in the US as representative of the whole country. It’s important to make sure that the population is reflected at a smaller scale. Scientists use something called probability-based sampling which equally randomizes participants according to age, race, and gender to make sure they are representative of the general population. It is through using this method that researchers can more accurately generalize or extrapolate findings to the general population.

Another issue surrounding earlier work in this area includes the specificity of their investigations. When investigating the pandemic’s effects on mental health in the general population, many aspects of the pandemic can contribute to worse mental health effects, including traumatic COVID-19 related experiences, exposure to media, diet, and so on. These all need to be considered when conducting research and selecting study participants. Using this method, means we get a balanced view on the impacts of the pandemic on mental health of the general populace as well as identifying what specifically contributes to the widespread mental health impacts.

The team from the University of California wanted to improve the evidence base in this area. They used the NORC AmeriSpeak panel, to address their findings that previous research hadn’t used representative sampling. This panel was an improvement, as a randomly-selected panel of 35,000 households across the US with participants standardised for age, gender, race/ethnicity, and education – making them better representatives of the wider population. Overall, 6514 people answered the study surveys. In this study, researchers were particularly interested in people’s exposure to COVID-19 as well as their use of media for information, including social media.

Participants were asked about their wellbeing at three different points during the pandemic. The first point was when there were 190 COVID-19 deaths in the US, and the last point was when there were 18,300. This allowed researchers to investigate how participants’ well-being changed as the pandemic progressed. They found that as deaths from the pandemic increased, people experienced worse mental health through stress and depressive symptoms.

Factors that negatively affected people’s mental health included: pre-existing mental or physical health conditions; prior life stresses like bullying; stresses linked to the wider impacts of the pandemic (e.g. financial insecurity); and personal exposure to COVID-19. Younger participants experienced worse mental health than older participants. Participants’ mental health worsened as a result of conflicting messages in the media and uncertainty about risk.

Understanding what affects people’s mental health during long-term crises like the COVID-19 pandemic is important for many reasons, not least because it’ll help target our management of future crises.

The study’s findings relating to the media are useful in many ways. For example, the media can protect people’s mental health by ensuring that conflicting messages are presented in a way that allows people to still make accurate judgements about their personal risks. It is also useful to understand the influence of media on people’s mental health, as it’s possible for individuals to take proactive steps to protect their mental health, like limiting time spent engaged with crisis-related media coverage.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a worsening of mental health across the US population. This has happened for a variety of reasons, some of which are directly related to people’s individual circumstances. Understanding these reasons can mean that people have a better understanding of their own risk of worse mental health, and it means that proactive prevention can be targeted much more effectively.

Study Information

Original study: The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic: A probability-based, nationally representative study of mental health in the United States

Study published on: October 14, 2020

Study author(s): E Alison Holma, Rebecca R Thompson, Dana Rose Garfin, Roxane Cohen Silver

The study was done at: University of California (USA)

The study was funded by: Project support was provided by U.S. National Science Foundation RAPID grant SES 2026337. R.R.T. was supported by a U.S. National Science Foundation grant, and D.R.G. was supported by National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities award K01 MD013910.

Raw data availability: Supplemental Info

Featured image credit: Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash