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The mental health impact of COVID-19

How can quarantine affect your mental health? How can we better manage the anxiety that lockdown can provoke?  Professor Cherie Armour from the Stress, Trauma, and Related Conditions (STARC) lab at Queen’s is working to find out. 

As isolation, lockdown and quarantine measures are enforced throughout the UK and Ireland, a team of researchers from the Stress, Trauma, and Related Conditions (STARC) lab at Queen’s University School of Psychology are conducting a study which aims to better understand the impact that COVID19 is having on the psychological wellbeing of the people in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Professor Cherie Armour, who is leading the project says: “COVID-19 and the restrictions it places on the population as a whole, such as the need to self-isolate, is and will continue to be a stressful life event for many people across the country.

“In Northern Ireland, Universities have moved their academic activities off campuses to online environments, schools and childcare settings have seen closures, as have pubs, restaurants, leisure venues, and shops selling non-essential goods. Businesses across many sectors are supporting their employees to work from home. With government rules stating you must stay at home, the daily escalation of the seriousness of the situation will of course be anxiety-provoking for many people.”

Professor Cherie Armour

Professor Cherie Armour

COVID-19 and mental health

Professor Armour’s research focusses on adverse and/or traumatic life events, including those that occur because of someone’s occupational role (e.g. Police, Military & Ambulance services), and how those impact on psychological well-being. She is particularly interested in the psychological disorders of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Depression, Anxiety and Dissociation.

“My focus is on biopsychosocial factors that exist pre-during- and post-trauma and how they predict someone’s risk of developing, or resilience against developing, mental ill health outcomes,” she explains.

As part of her research, Professor Armour examines the role of a number of things that might impact on the trauma exposure and mental health outcome relationship such as sleep, social support and emotion regulation.

She is now applying her research skills to examine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the overall psychological wellbeing of the population and what people can do to ensure that this impact is minimised for themselves and their families?

Boy on laptop looking stressed

The impact of quarantine

The project follows research from Kings College London relating to the psychological impact of quarantine.

“The research found that those quarantined reported heighted psychological distress including confusion, fear, anger, anxiety and difficulties with sleeping,” says Professor Armour. “One study reported that some longer lasting behavioural changes were seen such as vigilant hand washing and the avoidance of large crowds.”

She adds: “The research tells us that some of the key stressors during self-isolation / quarantine relate to fears about becoming infected, having inadequate supplies and inadequate information, a sense of loneliness through isolation, and feelings of boredom and frustration. Research has also found that longer durations of self-isolation / quarantine have a more adverse impact on psychological wellbeing.”

While the Kings College project reviewed a relatively small number of studies (26 in total), it provided the research community with a good evidence base for further research. Professor Armour says it is therefore now vital that the research community mobilise to collect robust and reliable data that will allow us to understand what the psychological impact of COVID-19 is but also how that impact may change over time.

Woman looks at her phone in bed

Gathering vital data

To that end, researchers at STARC have designed a longitudinal psychological wellbeing survey that is administered online.

“This survey will ask people a wide variety of questions about their life experiences, physical health, living environments, exposures and worries related to COVID-19, sleeping habits, what social support networks they have, whether they are experiencing loneliness, how they are regulating their emotions, whether they can see meaning and purpose to their life, and whether they are experiencing any symptoms of depression, anxiety, or PTSD in response to the COVID19 situation,” says Professor Armour.

The first survey takes just 20 minutes to complete and then subsequent surveys will take approximately 10 minutes to complete.

The survey will allow researchers to examine the psychological wellbeing of subgroups, such as healthcare professionals and other key workers. 

Professor Armour says “Previous research tells us that when people experience adverse life events those with better health, fewer past trauma experiences, more social support, a feeling of connectedness (i.e., not feeling lonely), those who have a sense of purpose and meaning in their life and those who can regulate their own emotions tend to experience fewer adverse impacts on their psychological wellbeing.

“The survey will allow us to understand if this is indeed the case for COVID-19 and for all those currently self-isolating from within our Queen’s University community and from across the wider community of Northern Ireland. Ultimately, this will inform us in how to best offer pragmatic help, with a view to alleviating some of the pressure that services face during these unprecedented times.”

Participate in the survey here.