Since the start of the pandemic, it’s been well known that older individuals and health care professionals have been particularly vulnerable to the risk of infection and death due to Covid-19. Two new papers from School of Psychology researchers are providing more insight into how worrying about their own safety causes specific mental health issues for these groups.
The studies, published recently in Frontiers in Psychology and Journals of Gerontology, offer warnings of immediate and potentially long-lasting damage caused by stress and worry over Covid-19. They are the first in a series of forthcoming research papers that will ask respondents questions about the decisions they’re making during the pandemic, including if certain factors – the November election, the current economic situation, social justice movements, and the virus itself – are impacting those choices.
The Georgia Tech team consists of Ann Pearman, a senior research scientist; graduate student Mackenzie Hughes, and alumna Clara Coblenz, who also now works on campus. They collaborated with two researchers from North Carolina State University, and the entire team is putting the finishing touches on a different study that involves “decision-making in terms of how people choose using protective measures, like wearing masks or avoiding crowds,” Pearman says.
Another study will involve what Pearman calls “skepticism about the virus. We offhandedly call it our ‘fake news’ variable.” This study will examine how respondents are deciding which media sources to rely on for factual information and creditable updates about the virus.
The mental health risks for health care professionals
Fears over catching the virus are among the worries in the minds of health care professionals, Pearman says.
When it comes to workers who may end up caring for those infected with the coronavirus, those surveyed “reported higher levels of depressive symptoms, past and future appraisal of Covid-related stress, concern about their health, tiredness, current general anxiety, and constraint — in addition to lower levels of proactive coping compared to those who were not health care professionals,” according to the abstract of the study.
“They’re just doing a lot worse than the general population, in terms of not getting enough sleep, and feeling depressed,” Pearman says.
Pearman wants to make clear that this study didn’t start out focusing exclusively on health care workers. “It was part of a cross-sectional study,” she says. “We tried to exclude (health workers), because a lot of precautionary behaviors, they can’t do. They have to go to work, they have to interact with people who are sick.” But the researchers saw the depth of the responses and decided to set up a separate category for health care professionals.
Pearman’s team ended up with 90 health care respondents, matched with a control group comprised of 90 individuals who work in fields unrelated to health care. All respondents used an online survey tool between March 20 and May 14 to answer questions and provide demographic data.
While there was no way to determine which of the respondents were actual frontline health workers, “we think that’s an even bigger issue,” she says, because clinical depression could develop for those closest to infected patients. “They’re still coming up as way more anxious and depressed. These people are at real risk for problems, and it’s not going away. Mental health experts talk about prolonged trauma and stress, and how bad it is for you. Our study was completed two months ago. It (the pandemic) is not getting better. It’s getting worse.”
Older Americans: higher risks, more coping strategies
The Pearman team’s other study regarding older individuals and Covid-19 stress shows that even though there are no major differences among age groups regarding general stress over the virus, “anxiety about developing Covid-19 was associated with more Covid-19 stress for older adults relative to younger adults, but proactive coping was associated with less Covid-19 stress for older adults relative to younger adults,” the study’s abstract says.
In the study, 515 U.S. adults, ages 20 to 79, reported to an online survey tool on their anxiety about developing Covid-19, proactive coping, and other virus-related stress.
Despite survey findings that center on age differences regarding the virus, Pearman and her team didn’t initially separate its respondents according to different age groupings that follow typical demographic categories, such as 25-54, etc. “We didn’t use a cut-off. We used age as a continuous variable, meaning we did not group people into age groups. So we found that from our entire sample, the older the participants were, the more likely that adaptive coping reduced stress.”
Adaptive, or proactive, coping involves ways of dealing with how the pandemic has challenged daily lives, and coming up with solutions to those challenges. “Planning is the best way to take care of little problems before they become big problems,” she says. “Planning for older adults may mean how they’re going to get their groceries, manage doctor’s appointments. Understanding that ahead of time is really helpful — getting people to figure out how to order groceries online, what kinds of things they need help with, where do you get a mask, etcetera, so that it doesn’t sort of creep up on you.”
Pearman says that a highlight of the study was developing a “Covid knowledge scale” established by the researchers as a way to help sort out the reliability of the information available about the virus, and then see how different respondents sought out and used that information. “We were looking for factual data on Covid-19, and the older adults did significantly better. There was a high correlation between age and knowledge scores. They certainly were getting the right information.”
From North Carolina State University: Shevaun D. Neupert, Ph.D. (Professor of Psychology) and Emily L. Smith, Ph.D. (Postdoctoral research scholar at the NCSU Center for Family and Community Engagement).
Pearman’s group is funded by a Covid-19 research grant from the Georgia Tech Office of the Executive Vice President for Research.
Pearman, A, Hughes, M., Smith, E.L., & Neupert, S. (2020). Mental health challenges of U.S. healthcare professionals during COVID-19. Frontiers in Psychology: Psychology for Clinical Settings. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.02065
Pearman, A, Hughes, M., Smith, E.L., & Neupert, S. (2020). Age differences in risk and resilience factors in COVID-19-related stress. Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbaa120