PTSD symptoms spiked globally in pandemic’s early days

February 4, 2021

Pandemic stress has been linked to PTSD. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

The specific set of stressors brought by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — including government lockdowns, unemployment fears and general concerns about catching the virus — may have caused a spike in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder around the world, a new Australian study found.

This research was the result of concerns beginning in March 2020 about how the uncertainty and volatility during the early days of the pandemic would impact mental health, Melanie Takarangi, an associate professor in the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work at Flinders University and an author of the study, told The Academic Times.

“At that stage, there was not a lot of information and there was a lot of uncertainty and speculation about how the pandemic may change daily life all around the world [and] the scale of the impact,” Takarangi said. “We were interested in how this uncertainty was influencing mental health — particularly in a traumatic stress context.”

The researchers conducted a survey of 1,040 participants from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. between April 10-21, 2020, and found that 13.2% of the sample population had PTSD symptoms at a level that would qualify them for a clinical diagnosis of the disorder. By comparison, the American Psychiatric Association notes that the disorder impacts about 3.5% of American adults annually. PTSD symptoms can include increased levels of agitation or irritability, as well as insomnia and other sleep issues, among many others.

The research, published Jan. 11 in PLOS ONE, also found that despite the high number of individuals reporting PTSD symptoms, only 2% of the population reported that they had tested positive for COVID-19, and just 5% reported that a family member or friend had tested positive.

Though traditional thinking regarding PTSD views the disorder as a response to a traumatic event that a person directly experienced, previous research has shown that people can have a traumatic stress response for future events, as well as for indirectly experienced events. The results of this study “challenge general assumptions about the development of traumatic stress symptoms and subsequent PTSD,” Takarangi said.

The findings suggest that for much of the sample population, the PTSD symptoms and the traumatic stress response were related more to the potential of a future event — such as the possibility of the individual or someone they care about contracting the virus — than to past or present direct or indirect contact with the virus itself.

As the pandemic has worn on for nearly a year, the mental health reactions may have either worsened or simply changed, Takarangi said.

“When we gathered data, there was a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity about the pandemic and the effects it would have on any one person’s life. We therefore found that a lot of people were worried about what might happen as a result,” Takarangi added. “However, lots of people may have now had direct experience with these anticipated events. For instance, some countries have now been in a state of lockdown for several months, and deaths have skyrocketed — these events having obvious implications for mental health.”

The constant exposure to media related to the pandemic on television and online may have also contributed to the traumatic stress response, Takarangi noted.

“Our data supports previous studies showing that exposure to news coverage is associated with traumatic stress symptoms and other mental health concerns,” Takarangi said. “Previous studies have focused on newspaper and television coverage, but the advent of social media has made news coverage faster and at a higher volume than ever before experienced in human history.”

The other concern for the researchers is the concept of “pandemic fatigue,” which has resulted in less compliance with preventative measures such as lockdowns, mask-wearing and social distancing, and which has been associated with an overall drop in the fear response to the pandemic, Takarangi noted. Accordingly, the mental health response currently might be due more to “frustration rather than fear about the pandemic,” Takarangi said.

Since this study was focused on the early days of the pandemic, the researchers hope to follow up with the participants in order to track how their mental health has evolved since then, Takarangi said.

“This would give us some insight into the psychological impact of imagined future events versus experienced events and also how mental health has changed as the pandemic has evolved and changed,” Takarangi said.

The article, “Why the COVID-19 pandemic is a traumatic stressor,” was published on Jan. 11, 2021 in PLOS ONE. It was authored by Victoria Bridgland, Ella Moeck, Deanne Green, Taylor Swain, Diane Nayda, Lucy Matson, Nadine Hutchison, and Melanie Takarangi, all of Flinders University.

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