A survey of 562 people in the United States helps reveal the emotional impact of the pandemic, suggesting that many turn to substances such as alcohol and marijuana to help them manage anxiety and depression.
For many people, the coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19) pandemic has profoundly altered their emotional landscape, and they feel the effects on a daily basis.
A survey from the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, has shed light on the ways in which people in the U.S. were dealing with quarantine and physical distancing in late March 2020.
The responses indicate that depression and anxiety are common and that people are coping with these issues in a range of ways.
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The university’s Parenting in Context Research Lab have published the findings online.
Overall reaction to the coronavirus
The researchers conducted the 2-week survey through Prolific, an online survey tool.
They launched the survey on March 24, a week after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic and the White House released guidelines for response measures.
In total, the investigators surveyed 562 people aged 18 or older. Among the respondents, 52% had at least a bachelor’s degree, and the average age was 35. Household incomes ranged from $50,000 to $70,000, and 74% of the respondents reported that they currently had a romantic partner.
As for the ethnic makeup of the cohort, 74% of the participants identified as white, 9% as Hispanic, 8% as black, and 5% as Asian, while the remainder identified as “other.”
Overall, 1 in 4 survey respondents knew someone who had been tested for the virus, and 1 in 9 knew someone with a positive diagnosis.
Analysis indicated that 76% felt that concern about the new coronavirus was justified, while 13% felt that it was not. Yet 98% of all respondents said that they were physical distancing, and 82% reported being in lockdown.
A little more than half of those surveyed, 54%, said that their lives had been significantly disrupted by COVID-19.
The researchers asked the participants to choose three words that best described their attitudes towards the pandemic. “Anxious,” “nervous,” “scared,” “stressed,” and “uncertain” were those that came up most often.
Personal concerns expressed in the survey were more economic than medical in nature: 47% of respondents were worried that they could not afford to pay their bills, and 53% were worried that their finances would run out altogether.
Many experience depression and anxiety
The researchers assessed the prevalence of clinical depression and anxiety among the participants using the PHQ-8 and GAD-7 scales, respectively — two recognized methods of assessing mental health problems — and found both conditions to be common among the respondents.
The percentage of participants reporting depression symptoms that occurred on “more than half” of days or “nearly every day” were as follows:
- feeling tired or having little energy: 38%
- having trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much: 36%
- feeling down, depressed, or hopeless: 25%
- having little interest or pleasure in activities: 23%
- having a poor appetite or overeating: 26%
- having trouble concentrating: 24%
- having negative self-esteem: 21%
- moving slowly or being fidgety: 8%.
Participants also reported symptoms consistent with anxiety, as follows:
- 43% said that they felt nervous, anxious, or on edge
- 37% felt that they worried too much
- 35% had trouble relaxing
- 31% said that they were easily annoyed or more irritable than usual
- 32% reported feeling afraid
- 36% were unable to stop worrying
- 17% felt restless.
The researchers categorized the coping mechanisms reported in the survey as positive or negative. Positive mechanisms were proactive actions to address difficult emotions, while negative mechanisms helped the person minimize or ignore difficult feelings.
As many as 89% of the participants reported positive responses, such as “taking action to make the situation better,” with 77% seeking out comfort and understanding from another person. Likewise, 84% of the respondents said that they invested time in being more productive, while 48% prayed or meditated to feel better.
On the other hand, 68% reported simply joking about the situation, 57% said that they made fun of it, and 47% turned their concerns into criticism of their own responses to the pandemic. The respondents also reported various forms of denial.
Alcohol and marijuana use occupied a separate section of the survey, and a significant number of respondents reported using these substances to feel better: 22% said that they had been using alcohol more, and 14%, about 1 in 7, said that they were using marijuana more.
Just under 6% of people who used marijuana medically reported increasing their intake.
A romantic partner emerged as one of the strongest sources of support: 71% of participants said that they were experiencing more emotional closeness with their partner due to the pandemic, while 58% reported more physical closeness.
However, almost 1 in 5 participants reported having more disagreements than usual with their partner during the pandemic. Among them, 15% reported an increase in verbal arguments, 2% reported more physical altercations, and 22% reported disagreements about the new coronavirus.
While the study catalogs an array of coping mechanisms, its scope is limited to the first few weeks of response to the pandemic. The authors urge healthcare professionals to prepare for longer-term effects, writing:
“As the pandemic worsens and disruptions to daily life worsen, mental health professionals need to be prepared for an increase in mental health and substance use problems.”
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