Protecting Mental Health in a Pandemic

Supporting our mental well-being

The COVID-19 pandemic has had health impacts far beyond the many symptoms of the virus itself, including on our mental health. Indiana University researchers have explored the implications of pandemic-related stress and anxiety and ways to improve outcomes.

A male senior wearing eyeglasses and using a mobile phone in his kitchen.

Older adults have experienced greater depression and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an IU study. Relationship strength (perceived closeness to the members of one's network) moderated the connection between loneliness and depression.

"What we found is the pandemic was associated with worse mental health outcomes for many older adults," said Anne Krendl, associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "However, for some, having close social networks seemed to serve as a protector against negative mental health outcomes."

Two-thirds (68 percent) of older adults reported spending less time than before with people they loved, according to the study, and 79 percent felt like their social life decreased or was negatively affected by COVID-19. However, 60 percent reported spending somewhat or much more time reconnecting or catching up with people they cared about and 78 percent were using some form of internet technology to keep in touch during the pandemic. On average, older adults reported spending about 76 minutes socializing virtually or over the phone each day.

Krendl collaborated with Brea Perry, professor in the College's Department of Sociology, on the study.

Although prior research has shown that people in this age group are not avid users of social media, the pandemic seems to have moved the needle, with more older people relying on social media to try to stay connected.

Anne Krendl, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at IU Bloomington

Research has shown that loneliness is associated with a number of negative outcomes for older adults, including higher rates of depression and higher mortality, while closeness to individuals in their networks can result in greater emotional well-being.

It is important, Krendl said, to fully understand the short-term impact the pandemic has had on older adults’ mental health well-being so resources and services can be available to those who need it. The researchers plan to follow up with those who took part in the survey, to see if changes in their mental health remain short-term or lead to permanent changes.

"One period of increased mental health problems does not necessarily mean a permanent change," Krendl said. "But certainly, periods of mental health distress can have longer term implications for health and well-being. Characterizing those shifts will be important for understanding the full impact of the pandemic on older adults’ mental and social wellbeing."

Krendl and Perry compared personal social networks, subjective loneliness and depression of 93 older adults in the Bloomington, Ind., community, six to nine months prior to the pandemic and from late April to late May 2020, when most people were under stay-at-home orders.

Predicting, and protecting against, COVID-19 stress

The constant threat of the pandemic triggers our stress reactions such as numbness and fight or flight, according to research by Jacek Kolacz, an assistant research scientist for the Kinsey Institute's Traumatic Stress Research Consortium, and his colleagues. 

A contemplative woman in a facemask.

Kolacz and his co-researchers found that younger people had more depression and worry; that greater coronavirus worry was associated with higher PTSD and depressive symptoms across all ages; and that prior adverse experiences—living through a natural disaster or being a victim of violence, for example—predicted more worry about the virus.

This survey of 1,666 U.S. adults after the coronavirus outbreak also found evidence that previous experiences of trauma sensitize our brains and bodies to react to new adversities with worry and anxiety.

Kolacz is now pursuing a national study to look at how trauma histories and body stress responses predict individual changes in mental health.