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Data explores how COVID fueled Americans' political and emotional curiosity

A high number of LGBTQ teens and youth struggle with mental health issues, according to a new survey by The Trevor Project.
Richard Drury
Getty Images
A high number of LGBTQ teens and youth struggle with mental health issues, according to a new survey by The Trevor Project.

A data set details the large social, emotional and psychological toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on Americans. A study used the data to measure the potential long-lasting mental health impacts — racial and political attitudes, including the presidential election and the Black Lives Matter movement.

It highlights how people with marginalized identities experienced higher levels of depression and anxiety during the pandemic.

WSHU’s Xenia Gonikberg spoke with Damian Stanley, an assistant professor of psychology at Adelphi University, about the study that he recently co-published.

WSHU: What does socio-emotional mean? What does it look like?

DS: Socio-emotional just means emotional processes that are related to human social interaction. But it also is sort of a combination of what we would call social processes, and emotional processes. So it's sort of a way of putting together social and emotion.

WSHU: I see that in your study you used a lot of parameters to measure the effects of the pandemic, like mental and physical health and political attitudes. Why is having all of these different and diverse aspects important for your study?

DS: I think what distinguishes our study from many other studies is that we really did try to capture as broad a picture of what was going on in the U.S. population at the time as we could. So when the pandemic arrived in March of 2020, we really didn't know what was in store and, we didn't have a good idea of what to expect in terms of what the societal impacts would be, or what the psychological impacts would be. Nor do we even know how long or intense this experience was.

So it was very difficult to go in and say, we want to target these questions about this upcoming event, when we didn't know what the event would be. And so instead, we took an approach where we just tried to capture a very broad psychological picture, with a little bit of a bias because we're interested in ourselves and social and emotional processes. So we tried to capture as broad a picture as we could. We put in a large number of basic psychological instruments that assessed things that we felt would be important during the pandemic, such as stress, depression, anxiety, you know, a large number of personalities.

But we also included a number of things that we thought were important given the situation at hand. So we were interested in political attitudes towards the government as the pandemic continued, we were interested in questions of how racial attitudes might change across the pandemic, at the time, there was a lot of anti-Asian rhetoric, and we were interested in understanding how that might be impacting the population.

And then later on, the year became much more complicated, there was the killing of George Floyd, there was a very contentious election. And so we found ourselves in actually a very good position to capture information around these major events, right. So we really aimed for a very broad picture in a relatively large sample of over 1,000 people. And we wanted to see, you know, our main fiction was that this would be a very dynamic period, that people would react in very different ways. And it would be an extreme stressor. And so we wanted to be able to characterize that as best as we could.

WSHU: So while you were doing your study, did you notice any specific patterns among certain racial or ethnic groups or age groups? What might this show in regards to who was most affected?

DS: So the paper itself is a data release paper. We have all of these variables that we've captured and we want. One of the reasons that we published this dataset is that we want many people to be able to come and ask questions of it. So we didn't go in with a set of questions or even try to identify patterns while we were collecting the data. That said, we have a large number of studies now that are coming out from the team that looked at a lot of different questions related to patterns over time. And these are in lots of different domains.

One example would be that we looked at this question of how intersectionality, that is the number of minority identities that an individual holds, predicts their mental health outcomes over the course of the pandemic. There is theoretical literature that suggests that there will be an increased load as you increase the number of marginalized identities that one holds, and that this would have a negative outcome on mental health.

And we do indeed see that as you increase the number of marginalized identities that an individual holds, they do exhibit increased levels of stress, increased depression, increased anxiety, and that seems to hold relatively stable across the whole pandemic, even though there are a lot of different situations that were contributing.

Another sort of question that we looked at, or that is being looked at, just to give you an idea of the diversity of the studies that are in here, is one that looked at how memory was impacted by the pandemic, so memory for one's own life and experiences. And here we found that or the study found that the onset of the pandemic caused an increase in memory. So people are better at recalling memories from that initial period. Whereas lockdowns so, you know, when states restricted our ability to move, compressed or remembered time, and this may sound like something that we're all sort of familiar with experiencing, right, this sort of monotony of lockdowns, but here, it's quantified and described.

Furthermore, we found that experienced emotion changed the shape and the substance of these memories, their negative emotion in particular enhanced recall, while more chronic markers like depression, and PTSD, predicted more blunted recall. So this is really sort of a study of how real world events can interact with our psychology to shape our memories over time.

So that's another type of study that we've done with this, we've also looked at post traumatic stress, disorder symptomatology, and how that was impacted over the course of the pandemic, we are looking at how racial attitudes towards black Americans were impacted across the events of the summer of the spring and summer of 2020, surrounding the killing of George Floyd. And so, really, you know, it's difficult to answer just a single question, because we have so many different things. But more importantly, we also want others to come and interrogate this data, so we can use this data to ask questions that we might not have thought of at this point. And so we put them out there for others to use.

WSHU: Why did you decide to use an online survey as the means to collect your data? Why did you feel that that was the best way of getting a representative sample?

DS: So when we were considering, there are a number of factors that were at play like when the pandemic will happen, but the most critical one was time, we had very little time between when we realized that the pandemic would be here and would be a large event. And between then and when we needed to really roll out a survey or some sort of set of measures that we could use to assess its impact. And so we had already built an infrastructure for collecting data online.

There are existing recruitment tools that enabled us to reach a large swath of people across the country. So because we had those, and they could be deployed relatively quickly, we went for an online data collection and used an online recruitment tool, which is called prolific in order to recruit our participants. So this means that they're not exactly the participants that one would get if you went door to door or if you called them but they're also not the participants you would get if you just stuck to college campuses. So it provides us with a regular, relatively diverse range. And we also took steps to increase that diversity by ensuring that we recruited, you know, across a wide age range, and that we were sampled from different areas across the U.S. equally.

WSHU: Tell me more about your findings, and what might it mean for people looking to study the pandemic's effects in the future?

DS: I think this dataset is interesting to a lot of different people. It's interesting to people who are interested specifically in COVID-related questions. How did people's emotions, attitudes, psychological constructs like depression, stress, anxiety, personalities, etc.? How were they impacted by the events of the pandemic? How did those psychological variables impact how we experienced the pandemic? So that's one very specific thing. So researchers interested in that type of question would be very interested in that data.

Another group that might be very interested in this data are policymakers who are interested in understanding what to do in future pandemics, which groups might be significantly at risk for certain mental health outcomes, and different ways in which mental health messaging etc., might interact with events to produce attitudes that are either more pro policy or anti policy, right? So there's information in this dataset about mask attitudes towards masking and attitudes towards lockdown. So how were those received? And how might we better deploy them in the future?

Then there's also people who might be interested in this strictly from a basic science perspective. So we have a lot of data here in which people can answer questions simply about basic psychology. So for instance, one study is looking at how we experience emotions and whether there is a sort of basic set of emotions that we experience? This is a big question in emotional psychology. And while it's been studied a lot in the lab, there has not been data in it in the real world.

And so this provides a new way of looking at these data using real world experiences, to understand the basic psychological problem, or question, and that's another group of people basic psychological research, who will be interested in sort of pulling apart these datasets, because it's very rare that you get this amount this breadth of measures in a single group of participants over such a long period of time, and repeatedly.

WSHU: What should we learn from your study?

DS: That's an interesting question. So I wouldn't say I think that one sort of take home from this way of doing science is that sometimes we don't have time to go in with a targeted question. We want to instead try to capture a moment. And that is valuable in and of itself. And then, you know, what's important is that you provide ways for people to then ask questions of that data in a rigorous way. So that's one take home. They think that there will be a lot to take home from the individual studies that are coming out of this project as we move forward. Right.

So there'll be a lot of take-homes about, you know, what groups can we identify who are sensitive to who might be more at risk of developing post traumatic stress in response to events like these? How do attitudes change under such duress? How our political attitudes are shaped by the media, etc. These sorts of questions will be ones that come to the fore over time, so there will be a lot of lessons to come. But this initial data release is really one where we're going to invite people to get as much as you can out of the data.

Copyright 2023 WSHU. To see more, visit WSHU.

Xenia Gonikberg