The early days of COVID-19 and its associated lockdowns contributed to negative mental health effects for many in the U.S., according to new Penn State research. But the researchers also found that some coping techniques, like wearing masks and focusing on self-care, were linked with positive mental health.
The researchers surveyed 442 participants between the ages of 18 and 90, asking them to answer questions that measure symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as how they coped with traumatic events. The surveys also measured how the pandemic affected participants mentally, physically, socially and financially.
They found that levels of stress, anxiety and depression were highest at the end of April, and levels were lower near the end of May as certain states made plans to reopen. Additionally, younger individuals and those with pre-existing health conditions were more likely to have negative mental health outcomes.
The researchers also noted that "social strain," such as someone making demands, giving criticism or simply getting on your nerves, was the strongest and most consistent factor. "This suggests that in difficult times like this, it could be particularly important to proactively structure our social networks in ways that minimize negative social experiences," said coauthor and graduate assistant Yanmengqian Zhou.
That being said, coauthor Erina L. MacGeorge, professor of communication arts and sciences, added that several coping strategies were associated with better mental health. "Things like keeping a consistent schedule, reminding yourself that things will get better, finding activities to distract yourself, and taking care of others who need help are all helpful," said MacGeorge. "Additionally, adhering to the national recommendations for protecting oneself from COVID-19, like hand-washing, social distancing and masking, was also associated with better mental health."
MacGeorge added that it is important to note that the study was done in April and May, before the protests following the killing of George Floyd and the ramping up of presidential campaigns.
"Many states were just starting to 'reopen,' and there was a temporary flattening of the COVID-19 illness and death curve at that time. There is reason to believe that the mental health impacts of the continuing pandemic will be stronger than they appeared in our study in May, especially for people who have lost loved ones, who are now out of work, or who have suffered racial prejudice and discrimination,” said MacGeorge.