How has COVID-19 affected mental health and well-being?

Clockwise from top left, Alisa K. Lincoln, Rachel Rodgers, Dean Carmen Sceppa, and Suzanne Garverich. Screenshots by Northeastern University

When will life return to normal? It’s a burning question on the minds of many people curious about when they can get back into their daily routines. 

The short answer, says Rachel Rodgers, an associate professor of applied psychology at Northeastern, is that we’ll probably never go back to the way things were before the pandemic struck. Instead, she said, the present circumstances will require us to continue finding new ways to adapt. It won’t be easy. 

“This will most likely be stressful because it’ll be a change,” she said during a webinar hosted by the Bouvé College of Health Sciences on the impact of COVID-19 on mental health. “Change is stressful, because there will be unknowns and because there will be fears around the fact that the pandemic will most likely still be with us. But it also means that there is continued opportunity for growth.”

Alisa Lincoln, a professor of sociology and health sciences, observed that efforts by public health officials to encourage people to take protective measures, such as wearing a mask and maintaining physical distance from others, have had unintended consequences.

“We’re saying now that we’ve convinced you to do this, now we want you to go back out there,” she said. “And for many that will be a traumatic event.” 

As people make this transition, Lincoln said it is important for schools, universities, and healthcare organizations to keep these considerations in mind. This is a moment, she said, to draw from lessons learned in the past about ways to promote mental health and prevent mental illness.

“Thinking about those things as students come back and as people ease out of COVID-19—whenever that will be—will be super important, whether it’s social connection or thinking about the larger things on a societal level: Employment supports, supports for food insecurity, [which] not only affects eating behaviors but has a huge upstream or downstream—depending on which version you use—on all aspects of mental health and well-being,” said Lincoln, who serves as associate dean of research at the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, and director of the Institute for Health Equity and Social Justice Research

While the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic remain to be seen, the immediate consequences recorded by public health officials include stress and fear of contracting the disease. There are also numerous consequences of measures to combat the outbreak, including associated social, economic, and political effects, Lincoln said. Declining trust is another source of stress. 

“This is a moment in society where there are tremendously high rates of distrust of scientists, leaders, and experts, and that distrust is also having an impact on our mental health and well-being,” said Lincoln. 

These issues often manifest themselves in disrupted eating and sleeping patterns, chronic health problems, and drug and alcohol use, she said. The groups that are most vulnerable are older people, people with chronic disease, children and teenagers, and doctors and healthcare providers.

Suzanne Garverich, a program assistant director at the Institute for Health Equity and Social Justice Research, shared findings and anecdotes from a survey she and her colleagues conducted that measured the impact of COVID-19 on post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, loneliness, and overall mental health. Eighty-five percent of respondents reported that their lives had been disrupted “some or a lot” by the pandemic. And, 72 percent of surveyed participants said that worry and stress has had a negative impact on their mental health.

“I have eaten more for comfort. Gained a lot of weight,” reported one respondent. “My blood pressure went up a lot from stress. Had to increase meds for it. Isolation (is) very painful at times. Caused feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, anger, and recklessness.” 

Rodgers’s own research shows that for many people, their capacity to exercise and eating habits were significantly altered by the restrictions brought on by the pandemic, which exacerbated concerns about weight and changed eating behaviors. 

At the same time, noted Garverich, who is also a program manager at Northeastern’s Public Evaluation Lab, the findings revealed the coping mechanisms participants have adopted to manage stress amid the pandemic. Examples included swimming, gardening, taking walks, meditating, exercising, and engaging socially with friends and family.

“Without being prompted, they talked about all the ways that they have adapted and created new wellness activities during the pandemic, showing the amazing resiliency of the participants,” Garverich said.

Lincoln, Rodgers, and Garverich were participants in Thursday’s discussion as part of the Women Who Inspire at the Forefront of Healthcare webinar series, which aims to highlight the voices and experiences of women in Bouvé who are working on the front lines of the public health crisis. The next webinar, on Aug. 6, will highlight the experiences of former students who work in the pharmacy field.

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