COVID-19’s Impact on Mental Health Hasn't Been All Bad
New research shows how mental health has been strengthened during COVID-19.
Posted Feb 17, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Key Points: The COVID-19 pandemic has caused mental distress, but it has also strengthened people's mental health in many ways. New research shows how the crisis has increased mental health through three main processes.
During the pandemic, it is understandable that research has been primarily directed toward helping young people and adults who are most vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. As a result, a multitude of studies have been published on the mental health crisis caused by COVID-19. This line of inquiry should not, however, be the only perspective, or come at the expense of research that examines the ways mental health has been strengthened during these challenging times.
In a newly-published analysis by Lea Waters and a group of positive psychology researchers (2021), the conversation is broadened to examine how the pandemic is also “buffering, bolstering and building” people’s mental health. The field of positive psychology was launched a few decades ago to provide balance in the mental health field. Rather than an exclusive focus on psychopathology, psychologists like Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) called for the scientific study of positive emotions, strengths, and relationships that foster optimal functioning.
This new research, published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, shows how positive skills, emotional states, and practices can help young people and adults cope with and continue to grow through the pandemic. Citing previous studies, the authors show how suffering is a common and important feature of positive psychology research. For example, human attributes like mental toughness, hardiness, compassion, and resilience help people rebuild from challenging times. Suffering can facilitate meaning and post-traumatic growth.
Pointing to a study from China conducted immediately before and after COVID-19 emerged, researchers found that even with increases in depression and anxiety, life satisfaction and happiness were present. In addition, some positive feelings increased, including love of family, gratitude, and faith in the future. This supported research conducted during the SARS pandemic that showed how feelings of isolation and anxiety co-existed with positive personal growth and development.
The current study suggests that people can endure high levels of stress and, at the same time, experience positive mental health. In addition, it suggests that mental distress and mental health not only coexist, but interact. Researchers reviewed 22 studies during COVID-19 and determined three types of interactions between mental distress and mental health: buffering, bolstering, and building.
Buffering Mental Health
According to Waters, et al., a buffering effect happens “when positive emotions, processes, conditions, and/or relationships serve to diminish or stave off psychological ill health during the crisis.”
For example, one short-term longitudinal study compared the mental health of U.S. college students prior to campus closures and then again after students had moved to remote learning. This study showed that grit buffered against psychological distress.
A study of Chinese college students showed that positive variables such as social support, resilience, and adaptive coping mechanisms buffered between COVID-19 stress and more acute mental disorders. Results showed that young people who turned their attention toward more positive aspects of their life, focused on what they could learn from challenging times, and thought positively about their future had less emotional distress.
Bolstering Mental Health
Walters, et al. suggest that a bolstering effect occurs “when positive emotions, processes, conditions, and/or relationships act to maintain mental health despite the crisis.” Researchers found four empirical studies that demonstrated this effect during COVID-19.
One study of 2,722 adults found that when resilience was present as an internal strength at the beginning of the pandemic, that resilience promoted positive psychological functioning during the pandemic. Another study of 1,059 adults showed that individuals who shared positive emotions with others that involved caring also showed positive mental health during the pandemic.
A study of adults from Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. examined the impact of COVID-19 on social connection, loneliness, and life satisfaction. Measures were obtained prior to the pandemic and compared to those collected during the pandemic. Despite social-distancing measures, social connection remained intact. This study suggested that social connectedness played a bolstering role in maintaining mental health.
Building Mental Health
Lastly, Walters and colleagues suggest that a building effect develops when a person “is able to use the crisis in a transformative way.” For example, this occurs when an individual develops internal strengths, like more self-compassion, self-awareness, and resourcefulness. These strengths can enhance meaning and purpose and lead to improved mental health.
For this part of the analysis, researchers mostly relied on past studies to predict future outcomes. They did this because COVID-19 is not yet in the rear-view mirror. From those past studies, they found many that point to the likelihood of growing stronger through adversity.
To date, one empirical study in Spain and one in Australia have been conducted on post-traumatic growth (PTG) during COVID-19. In Spain, growth was higher when “people believed they were living in a good world and had a positive outlook for the future.” The Australian study was conducted with teenagers. It found that the use and interpretation of positive psychology strengths by middle- and high-schoolers during the pandemic predicted post-traumatic growth. For example, students learned to let go of small hassles, deal with uncertainty, and become more accepting of others. These kinds of behaviors fostered students' personal growth and positive mental health.
Coping and Growing Through Challenging Times
According to this analysis, the processes of buffering, bolstering, and building are generated through nine aspects of positive psychology: positive emotions, meaning, self-compassion, courage, gratitude, character strengths, positive interpersonal processes, coping, and high-quality connections. Each of these aspects of human behavior is well-documented by research. By developing them, individuals are more likely to maintain or increase their mental health during times of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Seligman, M. , & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist , 55(1), 5–14. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.5
Waters, L., Algoe, S. B., Dutton, J., Emmons, R., Fredrickson, B. L., Heaphy, E., et al. (2021). Positive psychology in a pandemic: Buffering, bolstering, and building mental health. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-21, doi:10.1080/17439760.2021.1871945.