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Examining the long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic

31 May 2020

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A new longitudinal study will identify the social, cognitive and mental health impacts of COVID-19, from the womb to old age.

Much has been written about the threat that COVID-19 poses to our physical health, but a global team led by UNSW psychology experts posits that the longstanding challenges will include mental health and cognitive functioning.

For the first time ever, a new research team will explore what they describe as this pandemic’s toxic combination of two extreme psychological stressors: existential threat and social isolation. This initiative is known as the CORAL study - standing for COVID-19 Risks Across the Lifespan.

“By investigating the impact of the pandemic on mental health and what happens when the protection of a social support network suddenly disappears, we will be much better positioned to respond to the future health care needs or our national and global populations,” explains Dr Susanne Schweizer, the study’s chief investigator.

“This is one of the very few times we can do what we call a naturalistic experiment – a naturally occurring exposure to a threat. Usually we can't do this kind of research because we can't expose someone to a stressor of this magnitude in the lab.”

The CORAL study was recently launched online in collaboration with research teams in Oxford and Cambridge in the UK and Oregon and Pittsburgh in the US. The study invites participants across the three regions to evaluate their mood before and after the onset of the pandemic, and to track their cognitive function and social networks over the coming months.

Helping the young, the pregnant, and the elderly

The research will examine three subgroups thought to be especially vulnerable to the shock of enforced isolation: adolescents, pregnant women, and the elderly.

While past studies have established a link between long-term social isolation and reduced cognitive functioning in older people, Dr Schweizer and her colleagues are investigating whether this relatively short burst of social isolation will also have detrimental cognitive effects.

“Most research around loneliness indicates old people are most affected, but we can’t say if that is actually specific to older people, or whether it's just not being researched enough across the lifespan,” explains Dr Schweizer. “The COVID-19 pandemic has changed people’s lives so drastically that it is difficult to know how protracted the effects may be.”

The focus on younger people will investigate how the disruption of social distancing will impact them at a time that is typically used for social reorientation away from the family and towards their peers.

“We know that young people who are affected by mental health problems will also be likely to see an impact of their ability to be productive in the workforce across their subsequent lifespan, which comes at a really high toll to society. The ability to respond quickly is really key here,” says Dr Schweizer.

She also flagged that the effects of social isolation are also significant in pregnant women, with an impact on both mother and child.

“Not only will expectant mothers need to be especially vigilant when facing the existential threat of a pandemic, social isolation may bring additional challenges such as postpartum mental health problems. This could affect their moods and cognitive development of their newborn child,” she explains.

“By focusing on pregnant women, we're also better able to look at the longer-term impacts in infants being born now, because of stress exposure in mothers. Through this study, we can respond to their mental health needs now and in the future.”

Supporting evidence-based mental health interventions

The study is one of several priority projects shortlisted in UNSW’s Rapid Response Research Fund, and the University is seeking philanthropic funds to support the study long term.

This funding will be applied in various ways to fast-track the initiative including providing incentives for participants in the form of $100 vouchers for every 100th survey completed. The team hopes to enlist more than 3000 participants over the next six months, with people as young as 11 and beyond the age of 65 able to participate online.

Due to the highly sensitive nature of the data being collected, the team also requires funding to ensure the strictest security protocols are upheld with collating and hosting the data. Funding will also allow for additional human resourcing such as the recruitment of a postdoctoral researcher to support the work being carried out.

“Over time, this research will generate new insights so that governments and other entities can urgently make evidence-based interventions to reduce the mental health impacts of the pandemic,” says Dr Schweizer.

Participate in this research

Share your experiences with Dr Schweizer and her colleagues to help them change the course of mental health and cognitive development as a result of COVID-19.