LMU Study Ties Mental Health Conditions to Social Distancing, Stay-at-Home Orders

COVID-19 related social distancing is taking a measurable toll on the mental health of individuals across various age groups and demographics, a Loyola Marymount University study has found.

The research conducted by Brett Marroquín, an assistant professor of psychology at LMU, with Vera Vine, a postdoctoral fellow of the University of Pittsburgh, examines how different distancing behaviors — while essential to curbing the spread of the coronavirus — have contributed to spikes in symptoms of depression, generalized anxiety disorder, intrusive thoughts, insomnia and acute stress. The study, “Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Effects of Stay-at-Home Policies, Social Distancing Behavior, and Social Resources,” is published in the November issue of the journalPsychiatry Research.

“We have to confront the mental health toll head-on in order to make social distancing a more sustainable behavior for people to keep up,” said Marroquín, who teaches in LMU’s Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts.

Marroquín and his team assessed 435 people from 46 states in March, at the time when the pandemic was escalating and many stay-at-home orders were going into effect. They examined whether stay-at-home orders and individuals’ personal distancing behaviors were associated with mental health issues, and determined both actions were independently tied to higher symptoms. A subsample of 118 people who were surveyed earlier in the outbreak showed increases in depression and generalized anxiety disorder between February and March, and personal distancing behaviors were associated with the increases.

The team also found that – even when accounting for available support resources – social distancing was linked with symptoms of mental health conditions. Having a lot of social support was protective against symptoms, but not enough to wipe out the effects of distancing.

Additionally, women distanced about the same as men, but women reported more intrusive thoughts, marginally more generalized anxiety disorder symptoms, and higher social support. Distancing behavior increased with income, but participants with the lowest annual household income were significantly higher in experiencing depression than all other income categories.

“It’s been a common belief that stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures have negatively impacted mental health, but there has been very little evidence to support it so far,” Marroquín said. “Our research offers empirical support for an assumption that may have been made anecdotally. But evidence is really important on this issue.“

Because social distancing is so important for curbing the spread of the virus, public health officials need to take mental health seriously, he added. “We already know that social relationships are important for mental health, and our findings suggest this is a challenge during the pandemic.”

The team collected more data in July and plans to conduct follow-up assessments this fall. They will follow their findings across the changing pandemic, and examine some of the social factors and psychological causes underlying them. The full article can be found here.