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If COVID-19 is here to stay, how will it affect our mental health and trust in others?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 9 June 2020

Keri Wong.

As lockdown eases in the UK, many people are populating the parks and the outdoors. The latest government advice for England told us to ‘stay alert’, to practice ‘social distancing’ and to be vigilant. This heightened alertness combined with accumulating uncertainties around COVID-19 are stressful. In fact, living with stress for long periods of time can take a toll on people’s mental health.

The question then is: If COVID-19 is here to stay, what can we learn about people’s mental wellbeing now so we can help them later?

The UCL-Penn Global COVID-19 Study, which is still recruiting, aims to address this question. In collaboration with experts from five other universities1, we want to understand the short- and long-term impacts of the coronavirus on our mental health, physical health and trust in others. Some 1800 respondents from the UK, Greece, Italy, and the US have already taken part.

Initial findings

During the UK lockdown, we asked participants to identify sources of stress and the extent to which it causes them stress. Participants told us that they were experiencing ‘moderate’ to ‘a lot of stress’ from:

  1. Other people not social distancing (51.8%)
  2. The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 (e.g., when it will end, how it is transmitted) (50.8%)
  3. Future plans (46.3%)
  4. Mental Health (33.4%)
  5. Boredom and loneliness (30%)

When broken down by country – UK, Greece, Italy, US, and Hong Kong, it is clear that:

  1. Concerns over other people not social distancing (63.6% and 63.9%), mental health (42.7% and 35.6%) and boredom/loneliness (36.3% and 40%) were highest in the UK and the US respectively compared to Greece (43.8%, 25.1%, 18.3%), Italy (35.6%, 32.2%, 33.3%) and Hong Kong (39.4%, 18.2%, 22.7%) where the number of new cases and deaths have already plateaued during the same period; and
  2. Participants from all countries were concerned about the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 (48.5%-61.1%) and future plans (36.4%-54.2%).

Our study also look at people’s beliefs about social distancing measures. Of particular relevance to people returning to work, our UK participants reported the use of face covering in their community to be very low 0-30% compared to their counterparts in Italy (80%-100%), US (50%-80%), and Hong Kong (90%-100%). After months of debate around ‘face masks’ not being essential, the UK government has made the formal announcement of making ‘face coverings’ mandatory (4 June) on public transport as of on 15 June will be a nation-wide challenge. This behavioural change will require changing people’s beliefs about social distancing practices. With approximately half of UK respondents (45%) not firmly believing in the efficacy of wearing face masks outdoors – compared to Italy (78%), US (85%) and Hong Kong (97%) – the UK government will need to provide the public with more supportive and informative messages around face coverings. What face coverings are encouraged if not surgical masks? How will families that are already disproportionately affected financially also afford face coverings? Could there be a nationwide scheme for a standard face covering?

While COVID-19 has affected everyone, some are affected more than others. To rebuild our community and direct resources to populations in need, we must understand how COVID-19 is impacting us today. Our survey of adults during these challenging times and beyond can help assess the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and social relationships in the UK compared to other countries where lockdown policies are more strict or more lax.

As we continue to learn how COVID affects people’s lives, we hope to build a community for interested participants to share their lived experiences. We have collated some resources on our website and started a blog to inform people about our study findings. Because if COVID-19 is going to be with us for some time, we should do everything we can to emerge from this stronger, more informed, and better prepared for the future.

Image by mattthewafflecat from Pixabay 

  1. University of Pennsylvania, University of Trento, Nanyang Technological University, University of Massachusetts Lowell and The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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