Psychological effects of the pandemic
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March 17, 2021
After a year of social restrictions, what mental health impacts are being widely seen in surveys or research studies?
“It is no longer news that a lot of people are facing collateral effects of the pandemic. What is astonishing is the scale of this phenomenon: in parallel to the large surge in mental health symptoms, we saw in a sample of over 5,500 Canadians that insomnia symptoms are affecting one person out of two and that sleep difficulties are directly associated with worse mental health outcomes. This is a strong reminder of the importance of protecting sleep to improve mental health at the population level.” (Posted March 17, 2021)
“Generally, researchers have noted marked increases in levels of stress, depression, anxiety, and loneliness in the overall population over the course of the pandemic. The effects of the pandemic are widespread and affect multiple aspects of mental health and multiple populations and groups. People who have lost their jobs, have been furloughed, have experienced reduced income, or lost their business, are experiencing considerable stress and anxiety due to financial uncertainty, which ranges from not being able to pay their bills to fearing eviction from their homes. Those whose children are not in school and cannot afford childcare have increased anxiety and stress due to having to care full time or home school their children, while also managing their jobs. Many are struggling to cope with the lack of social contact, particularly those who live alone. Younger populations and children may also have reduced social development due to lack of interpersonal context. The effects are also greater among certain groups. People on lower incomes, those who work in frontline professions, and people of color are more likely to be under threat of reduced income and exposure to COVID-19 infection, which contributes to stress and reduced well-being.” (Posted 17, 2021)
“The past year has been a very difficult one for most people. The U.S. population has confronted a series of cascading collective traumas—starting with the pandemic, followed by economic strain, racial reckoning, and climate-related disasters, as well as the stress surrounding the election and its aftermath. We have also learned that the pandemic has not affected all people evenly and that some communities of color have been hit with greater rates of illness and death and uneven access to the vaccine. For these reasons, there is no “one size fits all” response to the pandemic and the cascading collective traumas that have followed.
“In our research, we see that young people have been harder hit emotionally than older adults—which was not something we had originally expected, given the increased risk of illness and death from COVID-19 among seniors. We are still trying to understand why young people have had greater challenges coping with the pandemic, but it may be the isolation from friends and loved ones that may be particularly challenging, or increased worries about their futures.
“We also see that individuals who have been more directly impacted — because they have experienced the death of someone close to them, or they or their loved ones have gotten ill, lost wages or their jobs—have had a more challenging time coping with the past year. But many have also experienced symbolic losses—losses of their senior year in high school, cancellation of wedding or birthday celebrations, or loss of a year that could not be spent with an elderly relative—and all these losses have accumulated over the past year.
“On the other hand, we also see that many people have been better able to appreciate time with their loved ones, to re-prioritize important relationships, re-adjust priorities, to focus on the fact that they have had more time for leisure activities, and felt more grateful for things they did have. This is not to minimize the psychological difficulty people have experienced in any way, but many people have also been able to experience positive benefits along with the negatives. As we move past the pandemic, research suggests that most people will be resilient and will come to appreciate coping strategies and strengths that they did not realize they had.”
What has research shown about effective strategies for coping with long-term isolation?
“Numerous interventions to manage feelings of isolation and loneliness have been proposed, although many have tended to focus on enhancing interpersonal contact, for which there are fewer opportunities in the context of the pandemic. In the context of the pandemic, it is important to increase access to online and socially distanced means to gain interpersonal contact and social support in the population, but particularly among the most vulnerable (e.g., those who live alone, the elderly, those with physical disability, and those with mental health problems). This may be through provision of equipment, e.g., web-enabled devices and appropriate training to use them. In addition, it is important to mobilize existing social networks that may be able to help the isolated, such as community organizations and religious and faith organizations to proactively reach out to those who are most isolated and provide them with regular opportunities to connect.” (Posted March 17, 2021)
“It is important that individuals reach out to loved ones and others who may have suffered particularly hard during this past year and offer their support. It is also important that those who have felt isolated reach out to others, talk to their health care providers or mental health professionals, or connect with chat lines or seek other ways of making a connection. The isolation that many feel is real and hopefully as the vaccine rollout continues, there will be more opportunities to make connections with others.”
What are some strategies people could use to reduce stress caused by ongoing uncertainty about the future?
“Numerous evidence-based strategies exist to manage stress in the context of the pandemic and beliefs about an uncertain future. One of the best ways of dealing with stress is to get people to put into place plans and strategies that will help them manage stress when it arises and focus on tackling the source of stress. For example, in the context of the pandemic, those who have lost their jobs or income, a source of stress, and face an uncertain future in terms of financial security, need to be able to seek work or find ways to manage on very low income—these are ‘action oriented’ strategies. Researchers in stress also talk about ‘controlling the controllables,’ that is, being able to identify the kinds of things that they can make changes to and disregarding or not attending to those things that they are not able to change. So enhancing an ‘action’ or ‘problem-focused’ strategy may be a way to help people cope, provided they have the resources to do so. For example, researchers and mental health practitioners have suggested how ‘a stress-is-enhancing mindset’ can be of value, that is rethinking stress so that it can be a positive catalyst for change and be a source of motivation and drive to get actions done. Changing the way people look at stress can help people participate in those action strategies. There are self-help exercise and video interventions that can assist people to viewing stress as enhancing and being more problem focused.” (Posted March 17, 2021)
“We recommend that individuals limit the amount of media they consume, particularly if they are feeling anxious about the future. Repeated exposure to ongoing stories that reinforce ambiguity and uncertainty are not likely to be psychologically comforting. Instead, individuals should monitor their media consumption and try not to spend hours after hours online or immersed in the news. In addition, self-care activities, like spending time in nature or outdoors, exercising, eating a healthy meal and getting enough sleep, are always encouraged as stress-reduction techniques.”
What do surveys tell us about overuse of alcohol or other approaches to self-medication during the pandemic?
“Research suggests that alcohol consumption has increased during the pandemic. This is consistent with research demonstrating marked population-level increases in alcohol consumption and other recreational drug use in response to traumatic events (e.g., natural disasters, terrorist events), due to the social and cultural association between alcohol and drug use to cope with adversity. The unique and widespread social impact of the pandemic and its sustained influence means increases in the misuse of these substances may be larger. Researchers have suggested the need to maintain screening and services for problem drug and alcohol use during the pandemic, but also increased awareness, social support, and online services for those seeking help and those who care for them. There is also the imperative that insurers and healthcare service providers ensure that there is sufficient screening and service availability.” (Posted March 17, 2021)
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Martin Hagger, PhD, Professor of Health Psychology, University of California, Merced and Professor of Behavior Change, University of Jyväskylä, Finland
No interests to declare.
Rébecca Robillard, PhD, Assistant Professor, School of Psychology, University of Ottawa
Roxane Cohen Silver, PhD, Professor of Psychological Science, Public Health, and Medicine at the University of California, Irvine
I have received funding to study the psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic from the National Science Foundation. They play no role in any of the quotes I provide on the topic.
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