Statewide pandemic restrictions not related to psychological distress, researchers find: Exposure to COVID-19 a stronger predictor of distress than state restrictions six months after pandemic began, study says

Despite concerns that stay-at-home orders and other government efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic would cause lasting harm to people’s mental health, research published by the American Psychological Association found that state restrictions in the first six months of the pandemic were not related to worse mental health.

Instead, people with personal exposure to the virus and those who consumed several hours of COVID-19-related media a day were the most likely to experience distress, loneliness and symptoms of traumatic stress.

The findings were published in the journal Health Psychology.

“For the past several decades, our team has been examining the psychological impact of large-scale disasters on the population. In February 2020, we realized that the novel coronavirus, as it was called at the time, was likely to have an effect on the U.S. population in the months to come,” said senior author Roxane Cohen Silver, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychological science, medicine and public health at the University of California Irvine. “We were particularly interested in the potential negative mental health effects of the associated restrictions placed on individuals throughout the pandemic, despite their potential for minimizing the spread of illness.”

The researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 6,500 participants at the start of the pandemic from March 18 to April 18, 2020, then surveyed almost 5,600 of the same participants approximately six months later from Sept. 26 to Oct. 16 to measure how their mental health and exposure to the virus changed over the course of the pandemic.

Respondents answered questions about symptoms of distress, loneliness and traumatic stress (acute and post-traumatic stress) they experienced in the prior week; whether they had contracted COVID-19; how many people they knew who had contacted the virus or died because of COVID-19; and how many hours on average they spent daily over the past week consuming pandemic-related news on traditional media, online news sources and social media platforms. The researchers then compared their responses with data about the spread of COVID-19 and government mitigation efforts, such as school closures and stay-at-home orders in each respondent’s state.

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