November 19, 2020
By Julie Gould
According to a new study published online in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, a global perspective on the pandemic’s effects on mental health shows that a significant proportion on the population have experienced depression and anxiety as a result of the pandemic.
“This study examined the effects of the COVID‐19 pandemic on the mental health of adults in the general population of five global regions, as well as the demographic risk factors that may have made depression and anxiety symptoms more likely,” the authors of the study wrote. “This is one of the first studies to provide a global perspective on the pandemic's effects on mental health.”
To better understand the study findings, we spoke with lead author Elisabet Alzueta, PhD, postdoctoral researcher, Center for Health Sciences, SRI International. Dr Alzueta discussed the importance of pandemic-related changes in life, especially in the work and home spheres, and explained why as a society, we need to be aware of this issue and provide social support to vulnerable populations during these difficult times.
What existing data led you and your co-investigators to conduct this research?
When the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 as a pandemic in March, we had to leave our labs. No one knew at that time for how long this situation was going to be or the magnitude of the pandemic, but listening to the news that came from my country (Spain) I imagined that this might be a traumatic event for a lot of people.
Many countries around the world started to take strong measures to stop the spreading of the virus, like quarantines or confinements. During those days I had the opportunity to do video calls with several scientific colleagues from different countries–the co-authors of this study–and all shared the same concern: we were confronting not only a public health emergency, but also an unprecedented global mental health threat for the general population.
We felt the necessity to do something about it, to learn from these unique circumstances in history. So we joined to design–in a record time–an online survey, which was subsequently translated into Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Turkish. Our principal goal was to understand the psychological cost of the extraordinary restrictions measures were taken by different governments around the world at that time.
Please briefly describe your study and its findings. Were any of the outcomes particularly surprising?
6,882 people from 59 different countries participated in this study reporting how the pandemic had changed several spheres of their live such social (eg, isolation), economic (eg, financial strain), home life (eg, relationships with people at home), and mental health wellbeing.
In our global sample, representing the general adult population from 5 global regions, 25.4% reported moderate‐to‐severe depression and 19.5% severe anxiety symptoms. Importantly, some demographic characteristics like younger age, not being partnered, identifying as a female or living in higher‐income country, make someone more vulnerable to these mental health problems.
We found that close contact with the virus (eg, having had unconfirmed COVID‐19 symptoms), and higher levels of restrictions imposed by governments are related to worse psychological outcomes.
But, above all, COVID‐19‐related life changes such as having a hard time transitioning to working from home and increase in arguments/conflict with other adults in home were strongly linked to a poor mental health status, being the best predictors of the depression and anxiety symptoms during the quarantine.
What are the possible real-world applications of these findings in clinical practice?
Our study highlights the importance of pandemic-related changes in life, especially in the work and home spheres. During these months several people have to work from home, which makes work-life balance more challenging than ever before. Work dynamics need to be adjusted to make it compatible with taking care of oneself and one’s personal life. This pandemic also is changing the relational environment at home. In this sense, it is important to note that the financial strain and social isolation during the pandemic might lead to escalating conflicts and violence at home. As a society, we need to be aware of this issue and provide social support to vulnerable populations during these difficult times.
It is crucial to understand the psychological effects that isolation measures and the subsequent impact on life have for the general population in order to respond to future pandemic waves. To control the spread of the COVID-19 during the next months, governments not only will have to balance the costs and benefits of implementing restrictive measures, but also provide mental health and social support during that time.
Do you and your co-investigators intend to expand upon this research?
Our survey benefits for having a big global sample and for asking about several other factors related to the pandemic. Currently, our research team is working to publish other studies about COVID-19 related post-traumatic stress in the general population (up to two-thirds of our sample reported clinically significant post-traumatic stress symptoms), or the importance of sleep health during the quarantine.
About Dr Alzueta:
Elisabet Alzueta, PhD, currently works as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Center for Health Sciences, SRI International, Menlo Park, California. Her background is Psychology, Neuropsychology, and Cognitive Neuroscience.
Alzueta E, Perrin P, Baker FC, et al. How the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives: A study of psychological correlates across 59 countries [published online ahead of print, 2020 Oct 31]. J Clin Psychol. 2020;10.1002/jclp.23082. doi:10.1002/jclp.23082