Anxiety

The Merkel Effect: How Leadership Reduces COVID-19 Anxiety

New study: German chancellor’s speech reduced anxiety during pandemic

Posted Jun 03, 2020

While COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, the pandemic has many psychological challenges. Political leaders must not only ensure sufficient medical resources to treat their citizens, but should also use their political influence to support people’s psychological well-being.

A new survey study, published in the Journal of Public Health, reviewed several mental health parameters in German citizens during the early acute phase of COVID-19 crisis in Germany in March 2020 (Teufel et al., 2020). The multidisciplinary research team from the Clinic of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy in Essen, Germany, surveyed the impressive number of 12,244 volunteers from the German public. The scientists, led by researcher Martin Teufel, asked the volunteers over a 2-week period between March 10 and March 24 about the level of COVID-19 threat they perceived, their trust in the German government, and their level of general anxiety and depression. Importantly, the researchers analyzed the mental health data in relation to the actions of the German authorities and chancellor Angela Merkel.

So what did the researchers find?

From March 10 onwards, there was a steady rise in levels of anxiety and depression, with a rapid surge after the authorities announced the closure of public institutions. Two days after borders were closed on March 15, anxiety and depression levels peaked. Most notably, after an unprecedented address to the German public by chancellor Angela Merkel on March 18, anxiety and depression levels showed a substantial drop. There again was a slight surge after social distancing was mandated on March 22, but both anxiety and depression levels stayed well below the level they had before chancellor Merkel’s speech.

Besides general anxiety and depression, the researchers also assessed the level of specific COVID-19 threat the volunteers perceived, the amount of so-called safety behavior volunteers showed (e.g., hoarding of toilet paper and groceries), and their trust in the German government. From March 10, perceived COVID-19 threat showed a clear upswing until the chancellor’s address, after which it levelled out. Safety behavior also increased over the course of the pandemic. Trust in government was initially rather low, but showed a first surge after the closure of public institutions was announced. Afterward it showed a steady rise, indicating that German citizens were generally content with the government's measures and showed a high level of trust in the political authorities.

Asked about the main insight of the study, Dr. Benjamin Weismüller, a member of the research team, answered: “Our results highlight the tremendous importance of political leadership for mental health and psychological well-being. Strong and transparent leadership can help reduce citizens’ anxiety and depression in times of crisis.”

References

Teufel M, Schweda A, Dörrie N, et al. (2020). Not all world leaders use Twitter in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: impact of the way of Angela Merkel on psychological distress, behaviour and risk perception. J Public Health (Oxf), in press.

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