In August, the COVID-19 Mental Health Measurement Group based at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released new research findings about the impact of COVID-19 on public health. Earlier this month, I was able to talk to Dr. Johannes Thrul, assistant professor in the department of mental health to discuss these findings. The following are some of the highlights of our interview:
1. When was the COVID-19 Mental Health Measurement Group formed and why?
Dr. Thrul: “In March of 2020, we formed the Mental Health Measurement Group. Based on our research related to previous natural disasters and economic recessions, we predicted that the unfolding pandemic would potentially have negative consequences for people’s mental health. We wanted to be proactive and to track and communicate about the mental health of individuals during this evolving situation.”
2. What is unique about the COVID-19 pandemic verses other such events?
Dr. Thrul: “We believe that the global and comprehensive scope of COVID-19 is unprecedented, and financial impacts of it are wider reaching than many of the previous natural and other diseases that we have studied. Considering the ongoing impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. economy, we can maybe also expect the prolonged negative impact on mental health on a population level. We believe it is important to keep monitoring the mental health of the U.S. population moving forward over time.”
3. How do you define mental distress and how did you measure it?
Dr. Thrul: “Because we do not have a blood test for mental health, conducting research on mental health can be a challenge. We developed the term “mental distress” because we could use existing research instruments (e.g. questionnaires) to capture multiple dimensions, for example depression, anxiety and loneliness. We categorized individuals that for a period of three days of the past week had feelings of anxiety, followed by trouble sleeping, feeling depressed, and feeling lonely as being mentally distressed.”
4. What were the results of your findings?
Dr. Thrul: “The Pew American Trends Panel found that more than one in four U.S. adults with no prior history of mental health condition experienced mental distress in the early phases of the pandemic. We found that 14 percent of adults could be defined as in ‘serious mental distress’ as compared to 4 percent in 2018.”
5. Who was most at risk for experiencing mental distress?
Dr. Thrul: “We found that mental distress was highest among young adults, those age 19 to 29 instead of the elderly as we had previously thought. Financial strain was a factor in individuals feeling mental distress. We found 19 percent of those in households with incomes of less than $35,000 per year experienced serious distress. Having someone with a pay cut or reduced hours was also a risk factor.”
6. What can people do to manage their mental health during this pandemic?
Dr. Thrul: “We recommend that people find concrete ways of staying in touch with friends and family. From previous research we know that exercise, food and sleep are important to mental health. Physical activity can be extremely important to buffer mental health. And, of course, if you are in an acute mental health crisis, reach out for help.”
7. In your findings, what role does social media play in affecting people’s mental health during this pandemic?
Dr. Thrul: “We found that that the use of social media does indeed play a role in our mental health. In our research, exposure to a greater number of traditional media sources like public television and radio, national news and newspapers, and local news sources, and more time spent on social media are each associated with mental distress.”
8. What does your research say about social media usage?
Dr. Thrul: “Based on the scientific research before COVID, we know that there are consequences of social media use that go in different directions. If you are just using social media passively, just taking in information, and not being active yourself, that has negative consequences potentially for mental health and makes you feel more stressed. But when you actually do have interactions with other people on social media, that seems to have positive consequences for your mental health. We were careful not to say, ‘people should not use social media’ because then that would cut them off from their social support system even more, but rather use social media in a strategic way of staying in touch with folks, rather than just taking in information.”
9. Based on this research, what is your recommendation with regard to engaging in social media?
Dr. Thrul: “If you’re spending time on social media, we would suggest limiting it to activities that will be most supportive of your mental health, such as interacting with friends and family rather than just passively scrolling through the news feed and taking in information.”
10. Have you uncovered any silver linings related to COVID19?
Dr. Thrul: “One of the positive benefits related to the pandemic is that health care providers are offering tele-psychiatry appointments during the pandemic, even for establishing new care. This is something we recommend people take advantage of. We believe these changes in tele-psychiatry are here to stay and will potentially also improve the mental health care of people who previously have had maybe little opportunities and access to providers based on, for example, living in a remote location. So that’s really one of the hopefully positive things coming out of the pandemic.”
Danei Edelen is the founder and president for the NAMI Brown County Ohio affiliate. She is a mental health advocate for the Brown County Board of Mental Health & Addiction Services. You can contact her at [email protected] or 513-436-0010.