Study reveals impact of stay at home orders on mental health

Monday, June 1, 2020 - 8:05pm

.

Design by Cara Jhang

Depression and anxiety have increased since the beginning of the stay-at-home orders, according to a study conducted by Shawna J. Lee, associate professor in the University of Michigan School of Social Work. 

According to the research brief, Lee found that 28 percent of the 562 respondents in the survey said they have been using alcohol and other drugs more often to make themselves feel better. The study also showed that two-thirds of the respondents had shown symptoms of depression like feeling tired, trouble sleeping or feeling hopeless for several days or more since mandated social distancing began.. Additionally, more people showed symptoms of anxiety: Over 50 percent of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety for several days in a week since the pandemic began. 

Lee explained the reason why mental health has been affected by the pandemic based on her research.

“I think a really big factor, and some of our research has shown this, is the social isolation and social distancing that people experience makes it very hard,” Lee said. “You have two factors coming together, you have social isolation and social distancing, economic uncertainty for many Americans, and maybe it’s just not economic uncertainty, but just uncertainty in general.”

It has been about three months since Michigan’s stay-at-home orders were put in place. Since the study was conducted at the end of March and safety measures, Lee expressed concern about people who might still be using alcohol and marijuana to cope with their anxiety, saying it could harm their work and personal relationships.

“If you’re using that same coping strategy, drinking alcohol too much or using marijuana too much to cope, that’s where I think mental health professionals would be concerned about people’s well-being because alcohol problems and other types of substance abuse problems can develop in these kinds of situations,” Lee said. “If people don’t recognize it or don’t get help or assistance, it can really start to interfere with your work and your relationships with your loved ones.”

Rackham student Kaitlin Ward, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in the Joint Program in Social Work and Psychology, helped conduct the study.

Ward further described why mental health has been negatively impacted by the stay-at-home order.

“We know that humans are social beings and any time that there is a big change in our schedule or a big change in our routines, for example, moving from one place to another or changing your job, we know that that can have large effects (on) your mental health,” Ward said. “It makes sense that having such a big change would have some effects on our mental health, so it’s extremely important to think about how our mental health is doing through this pandemic and how we are getting our social needs met just as human beings.”

Ward said the importance of their study results is that not only has there been a spike in symptoms of anxiety and depression, but people have also begun to accept the reality of the pandemic. About 96 percent of the sample in the study have accepted the reality of the pandemic and 89 percent have begun taking steps to make the situation better.

“By releasing this study, we are showing a high amount of mental distress, but we are also showing some positive signs that people are trying to adapt and people are trying to cope in pretty healthy ways, which is pretty amazing,” Ward said. 

In regards to mental health resources, both Lee and Ward agreed that there needs to be an increase in access to mental health services for people to cope with their anxiety and depression due to the pandemic. 

Lee described how college campuses can help with mental health in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“On college campuses, doing more to make sure that services are available to people who are suffering the after-effects, even after we go back to school and things start to return to normal, that there’s an awareness of this,” Lee said. 

Like Lee, Ward said it is important  for everybody to put mental health as a top priority. 

“Right now, we’re focusing a lot on jobs and financial resources, which is definitely needed, but people need to be focusing on their mental health and make sure that their mental health is in place because without that, we’re really not going to be able to thrive in our work settings or in our social relationships,” Ward said. “This is something that the government and we, as researchers and as people in general, need to maintain a focus on throughout this pandemic.”

Marissa Levey, a recent graduate of the School of Public Health, expressed how COVID-19 has specifically impacted students’ mental health. 

“I think especially it’s kind of a multifaceted problem,” Levey said. “For one, there is the uncertainty about the future, whether you’re a current student who’s not sure (about ) the future of the upcoming academic year or you’re a recent graduate, like me, who is struggling to enter the workforce and figure out post-grad plans. There’s a lot of anxiety about not knowing what’s to come next.”

Levey also shared the importance of practicing positive coping strategies to help with anxiety and depression during the pandemic.

“Honestly, anything that helps you feel fulfilled and productive. It doesn’t have to be physical activity. It could be writing, cooking, baking, making crafts, maybe just even connecting with friends,” Levey said. “I think that one positive outcome out of this really difficult situation is that it’s forcing us to all build resilience and learn new coping strategies that we’ve never really, for most of us, have never really had to use before to get through the day-to-day life.”

Although this pandemic has affected many people’s lives and mental health, racial disparities are also very prevalent during this time. More specifically, the African American community has faced a disproportionate number of deaths due to COVID 19. 

Carr also expressed the importance of addressing how race can impact mental health during this pandemic.

“I think it’s really just to clear the air and make sure that African Americans and everybody as a race has a type of voice in speaking about the COVID-19 virus or mental health in general, just to have some type of voice or some type of saying to what’s going on and make sure that they’re not alone in this at all,” Carr said. 

Riana Anderson, a professor at the Public Health School, specializes in how racial discrimination affects the psychological wellness of Black youth and their families. She said the Black community faces multiple barriers that affect their mental health, including limited access to therapy and social stigma with speaking out about mental health. 

“For people to say ‘I’m going to change my behavior to do something for my good,’ there has to be a number of stars that align,” Anderson said. “You have to believe you can engage the system, you have to believe this can change your health, it has to be affordable, accessible, etc. So when so many of those things are misaligned for Black people … then that can really disway someone from seeking care.”

Anderson also noted that the Black community is currently facing national attention on racism and police brutality in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic. She discussed how people were willing to risk their lives to take a stand, further adding to the discussion of mental health among the Black community.  

“That’s how absolutely unbelievable this is — that you would be willing to risk your life on multiple levels to say this is not right,” Anderson said. “From a mental health perspective, this is how damaging that must have been for people and their psyche and their wellness and their belief in what is right and what is wrong in this country to say enough and to leave their house in pure frustration.”

Summer News Editor Kristina Zheng contributed reporting. 

Daily Staff Reporter Ann Yu can be reached at anncyu@umich.edu