Beyond the health, social and economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are also enormous psychological implications, the extent of which are yet to be fully understood. Last week, Thomas Schaefer, finance minister of Germany's Hesse state, took his own life, apparently after expressing despair concerning the pandemic. Several nations are also reporting a dramatic increase in domestic violence related to the lockdown. Levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness and insomnia have all risen, and those with pre-existing mental health conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive and health anxiety disorder, are having a particularly hard time.
While the research of bio-scientists and the work of healthcare professionals is of the highest importance right now, exploring the psychological aspects of the pandemic can also be helpful. Understanding people's behaviours, intentions and emotional states can enlighten and enrich our public health strategies. This knowledge can also inform the way we frame our health messages, and the type of services we offer to people. Good examples of psychology's response to the Covid-19 pandemic are already emerging.
A study led by Prof Richard Bentall at the University of Sheffield is looking at the psychological effects of Covid-19 on the general public. Out of more than 2,000 respondents, about 25 per cent had not yet wholly refrained from panic buying. Furthermore, at least 30 per cent were less than definite about opting to be vaccinated against Covid-19, if a vaccine were available. People fear coronavirus, but for whatever reason, some of us also fear vaccines.
This ongoing UK research also explored the emotional effects of the pandemic. The study started on March 23, before UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown. After this announcement, there was a massive spike in the levels of depression and anxiety symptoms being reported. The spike had partially decreased by March 25, but remained relatively high during the rest of the week. What we know from this research is that some groups are more badly psychologically affected than others, for example, people with young children and those with a prior history of mental health problems.
This study will soon be expanded to several other nations, including Saudi Arabia, India and Spain. This type of research will ultimately give us an idea about the mental health effects of the pandemic. It will also tell us which groups are at heightened risk and which are most resilient to the psychological fallout. Understanding who is most resilient and why can help shape public health strategy. Knowing who is at heightened risk can also help us better target our support and preventive interventions.
Beyond research, psychologists have also been responding to the crisis by offering services and support online. While online counselling and psychotherapy are nothing new, the up-scaling of some operations is unprecedented. The Oxford University Centre for Mindfulness, for example, has started offering weekly online mindfulness sessions, free and open to the public. Based on demand during week one, they had to increase their capacity to 1,000 participants at a time.
Making such a programme widely available is a good move. Mindfulness helps reduce stress and stress hormones, thereby providing a boost to the immune system. It can also lead to people becoming less irritable and stress-reactive, which might help make lockdown more bearable for those who are struggling. Research also suggests mindfulness can help with insomnia, which can become a concern while working from home, especially if we are not getting our usual dose of fresh air and exercise.
Our team at Zayed University have started offering online mindfulness sessions for staff and faculty, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, despite the occasional technical glitches. Preserving and creating a sense of community and belonging through shared online activity is particularly essential and health-promoting right now.
Shaping government initiatives aimed at influencing or changing the public's behaviour is another area where psychology can make a significant contribution to the current crisis. In recent years, governments have increasingly turned to psychologists for "behavioural insights".
The UK government, for example, set up the behavioural insights team, unofficially known as the "Nudge Unit". Such groups have demonstrated time and again that doing things just a little bit differently can have a considerable effect – nudge them in the desired direction, if you will. For a simple example, having people opt out of organ donation rather than opt in massively increases the number of organ donors in the population.
The insights that these teams bring to the table are based on decades of psychological research into human behaviour and our decision-making processes, both rational (like washing hands) and irrational (hoarding toilet paper). As this crisis unfolds, we may well further benefit from this area of psychology. We don't know the future, but we do know a bit about human nature – at least enough to make some useful predictions that we can scientifically test.
Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University