How The Pandemic Is Affecting Mental Health

Friday, June 5th 2020

With working from home, happy hours over Zoom, dance parties on Instagram, our social lives look a little different these days. So, how are all of these changes affecting our mental health? That's what researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are trying to figure out with the Pandemic Project. Samantha Guzman talks with project researcher Ashwini Ashokkumar.

Samantha Guzman: The Pandemic Project is trying to see what are the social and psychological effects that the pandemic is having on our everyday lives. How are you conducting this research?

Ashwini Ashokkumar: We're doing this in two ways. The first is that we have a large scale survey and we have respondents, about 20,000 respondents from the U.S. and Canada so far. We've been collecting data since mid-March. We've also collected data from outside the U.S., and Canada, that's with the help of international collaborators, and I would say we have about 10,000 respondents from outside the US.

The second thing we're doing is that we are analyzing people's social media conversations, and by analyzing their language we can get a sense of what people are thinking, how they're feeling, how they're behaving, and so on. We've been tracking that, and that's pretty useful because we can go back in time and see how people were talking even before Covid to get a clearer sense of how the course of the pandemic is affecting life.

SG: What have you guys found out so far? What are some of the common reactions people are having?

AA: I think the most consistent finding, which is really not that surprising, is that anxiety levels are really high, and they shot up even in the beginning of March, so that's even before most cities announced shelter-in-place or lockdown orders. They peaked I think in about mid-March, and that's when most of the shut down orders began, and that's when most people started working from home. But, even though now it's been decreasing since mid-March, it's still way higher than what it was before the whole crisis.

Another one I can think of that I think is really interesting is that we're seeing that people's sense of community is being disrupted, and what I mean by this is when we ask them how connected they feel to their friends or neighbors or their city or even the country, it looks like these levels of connection are way lower than pre-Covid.

SG: How is a pandemic different from another crisis someone may go through? I'm thinking, like, a natural disaster like a tornado or a fire. How is this different from that?

AA: I think that one of the biggest differences is that with most other crises, the most well known cure for anxiety and uncertainty is coming together with other people, coming together to make sense of what is going on to comfort each other, and so on. And, I think a pandemic is very unique in the sense that other people are potentially threats because they could potentially be carrying the virus, which then means we can't really come together, or even if we can, there are rules for how to come together or the means to which we can come together, which might explain the patterns I was talking about that we're now seeing people are retreating and the sense of community is being disrupted, so this could be linked into that.

So, I think that's one of the biggest differences in that we can't come together to cope with the virus in the way we usually would, because if you think about a hurricane or 9-11, typically, any kind of mass shooting attack, typically, people report feeling way more connected than before. People feel a sense of solidarity with everyone else, which we're not really seeing in this crisis.

And, another difference might be that in most other crises, they tend to play out in just a couple of days or maybe a week, but they don't last this long, and they also don't affect the whole country or the whole world at the same time. It's usually localized, which then means that other people in other places could offer support. Or it's not that the whole world is under attack at the same time, or that level of threat or the cause of threat is indefinite, which in a pandemic is.

SG: I have to ask, you know, over the weekend, over this past week, a lot of unrest sort of just erupted all over the country. And, I wonder what the combination, of not only the pandemic, but now all of these protests and social unrest about what's happening in our society. It feels like one thing after another. How could that be affecting how people feel right now?

AA: My most honest answer is that we don't have the data yet. That’s something we're definitely actually going to look for. It's a great question, but I don't know. But, my guess is that there's going to be a lot of fear. There's been a lot of loss because of Covid and people's moral is really low, and at this time with all the chaos in the videos of violence from the side of the police, and I think all of that could affect the moral of society even more.

SG: Are you guys looking at all at the mental health breakdown according to race?

AA: We've looked a little bit. I think anxiety among Hispanic community looks pretty high. I would say higher than other communities. There's also a lot of anxiety about people's financial situations, losing jobs, and so on, which disproportionately fall on African Americans and Hispanic community. And they are much less likely to be at home working, more likely to be involved in the service sector or essential work and so there is entire anxiety related to getting infected, but also related to losing a job, all of the financial aspects of Covid.

SG: What can someone do right now to try to cope with the mixed emotions that they might be feeling?

AA: I think that the best cure for anxiety and uncertainty is people's relationships. So, I would say that the most effective way might be, in whatever way possible, to connect with family and friends, even if it is online and even if it doesn't feel as good as in person interactions. And, I think in general there's a lot of research showing that having a routine or habits gives people a structure in their everyday life, which has a positive impact on mental health. Of course Covid, the whole outbreak, has affected people's routines like their daily routines a lot. But, from our data it looks like people are adapting to this new normal because it's been over two months and we're all at home. A lot of people have new routines now, even if it's not their ideal. Habits and routines are so helpful just because there is a structure which then means we don't have to think about every different thing and it kind of saves some brain power.

SG: So, what are the next steps for the research project?

AA: Well, so far, what we have been doing is kind of watching what's happening in the world and going with it. We change the survey a lot based on how the world is changing because we have no sense of what's gonna happen. So, just keep track of what's happening, for example now with all the protests that are happening, we're gonna ask some questions about that. So, our plan is to kind of just watch what is happening, what people are talking about online, change our methodology accordingly to understand broadly as much as possible what is happening. And, we're gonna continue this through the course of the crisis to check long term what the temporal patterns are.

Want to share how you are feeling? Take the Pandemic Project’s survey here.

You can find more results from the study here.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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