The Factors That Support Mental Resiliency in a Pandemic

Study shows variety of factors lessen anxiety in COVID-19 viral outbreak.

Posted Apr 01, 2020

Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash

by Sarah Wilcox

Is it possible to identify those most at risk for contracting mental health problems during and after the COVID-19 viral outbreak? A study analyzing the mental health effects of the pandemic on Chinese medical school students shows that certain demographic factors can make one more mentally resilient to stressors from this global event. More specifically, this research found that the factors associated with positive family support and financial stability were connected with lower levels of anxiety among the students. Additionally, having a family member or acquaintance who had contracted the virus significantly increased the likelihood of experiencing anxiety. Knowing some of the risk factors and triggers contributing to negative mental health outcomes could help both professionals and laypeople alike mitigate the potential negative consequences of the pandemic on at-risk individuals.

The Situation

These findings flow from the 2019 global outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, originating in Wuhan, China, and crossing borders to 177 other countries with over 700,000 cases and 33,000 deaths to date, according to WHO data. Due to the immeasurable impacts this pandemic could have on global and economic health, changing the world as we know it, scholars at Peking University explain that the coronavirus “could result in [mental health] hazards that exceed the consequences of the 2019-nCoV epidemic itself.” There is no doubt that this large-scale, unprecedented pandemic affecting in some way nearly every person around the world and shutting down major systems in many countries could wreak havoc on the mental health of all those impacted. At this point, when it is unclear how events will unfold, anxieties of the outbreak’s implications run especially high, and healthcare workers may have to prepare for a subsequent mental health pandemic.

The Study

The study at hand was conducted in Changzhi, China, by head researcher Wenjun Cao of Changzhi Medical College’s Department of Preventative Medicine and a number of his colleagues. Noting that “no detailed study on the mental health status of college students facing the epidemic [had] been conducted to date,” they surveyed 7,143 medical students, obtaining much of their demographic information and their GAD-7 scores, a widely used self-examination that reliably indicates anxiety levels as either normal, mild, moderate, or severe. The collected demographic information included gender, region, place of residence (urban/rural), family income, whether the participant lived with parents, and whether the participant knew someone who contracted COVID-19.

Overall, the results showed that 21.3% of students experienced mild anxiety from mere knowledge of the existence of the virus, 2.7% experienced moderate anxiety, and 0.9% experienced severe anxiety. When analyzed alongside demographic data, the following conclusions were drawn:

“…Living in urban areas, in contrast to rural areas, was a protective factor against anxiety experienced by the participants. The stability of students’ family income and living with parents were also protective factors against anxiety. However, having a relative or an acquaintance infected with COVID-19 was a risk factor for anxiety.”

In other words, living in an urban community, having a steady household income, and living with parents could make a person more resilient to the anxiety-provoking stressors COVID-19 has wrought. However, knowing a person with COVID-19 could actually trigger a severely anxious reaction out of even the most resilient people. When one is actually acquainted with a carrier of the disease, the virus transitions from being a mere idea or distant threat to a clear and present danger.

Some Steps Forward

While the indicators of mental resiliency may differ by culture—i.e., living with parents (typical in collectivist cultures) could be adjusted to living with trusted friends or other culturally appropriate accommodations that indicate a supportive homelife—I believe the results still carry important implications for all people living under the pandemic.

Both on an individual and systemic level, preemptive measures should be taken to promote positive mental health among particularly vulnerable communities. On the individual level, perhaps one could reach out to a neighbor living alone, providing regular calls to give social support that may be lacking. On a systemic level, governments should provide a safety net and mental health resources to poor communities that don’t otherwise have substantial savings to rely on, lessening the anxiety of wondering where the next meal will come from or whether rent will be paid. These are just a few of the possible action items this research supports in the hopes of mitigating an inevitable widespread mental health crisis springing from the change and insecurity spurred by the novel coronavirus. The sign in front of a historic Methodist church in Washington D.C. somewhat humorously reads “Standing together in solidarity, six feet apart.” The study at Changzhi Medical Schools helps us to do just as the sign suggests. It informs our solidarity by shining light upon those amongst us who are most vulnerable to anxiety and other mental health challenges, provoking us to take concrete measures to support each other.

Sarah Wilcox is a Master’s student at Wheaton College (IL) studying Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership.