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Mental Health Awareness Month Q&A: How pandemic has affected stress, anxiety, depression

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As part of May being Mental Health Awareness Month, Dr. Jiying Ling, an associate professor with the Michigan State University College of Nursing, is addressing some of the key findings from her recent study on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on stress, anxiety and depression levels among low-income families.

What did your study set out to find?

We wanted to identify how the pandemic has affected lower-income families, specifically, looking at several factors, such as access to food, number of children in the household, screen time and physical activity levels, sleep quality, employment and the ability to keep up with paying bills, among other topics. We also wanted to dive deeper to see if there were any differences across races. Consequently, last fall, we looked at more than 400 survey responses from across the country — including some in Michigan — to find common themes.

What did you learn?

Here are some of our key takeaways:

  • Screen time: Almost eight in ten respondents reported spending more time on screens during the pandemic, leading to increased stress, anxiety and depression.
  • Physical activity: Conversely, more than a third of participants engaged in more physical activity during the pandemic, which led to better stress, anxiety and depression levels.
  • Sleep disturbance: About seven in ten parents had sleep disturbance, resulting in higher stress, anxiety and depression levels in parents; and increased sadness, fear, and anger in children.
  • The more kids, the better: While finding daycare options was a source of stress for many parents, almost nine in ten respondents said they felt closer to their children because of the increased time together. The better parent-child relationships led to improved mental well-being among both parents and children.
  • Availability of food: Almost half of respondents reported issues securing access to food.
  • The difficult access to food not only increased parents’ stress, anxiety and depression, but also exacerbated their children’s feelings of sadness and fear.
  • Paying the bills: Nearly two-thirds of respondents struggled paying the bills during the pandemic and, consequently, had higher stress and anxiety levels.

 

Did anything surprise you?

I don’t know if I would call it quite a “surprise,” but it was validating to see that different races processed life stressors differently. For example, white families seemed to perceive worse mental health and emotions across the board. In health care, there is something called the “black-white mental health paradox,” which basically states that even though those from minority communities are often facing more obstacles and greater pressure, that their depression levels are lower than those of whites. While that data already exists, this study added to that knowledge by also measuring stress and anxiety as well as children’s emotions.

What can health care providers, parents and communities do to improve stress, anxiety and depression among lower-income families?

Everyone needs to come together to develop activities and programs that encourage more physical activity, less screen time and promote quality sleep. Clearly, respondents were willing to engage in more physical activity if they had the time or were working remotely. Finding ways to incorporating that into “the new normal” as we emerge from this pandemic will be crucial.

Which tools or resources exist out there to help families cope with stress, anxiety and depression during the pandemic?