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Pandemics, Politics, Mental Health, and an Opportunity

Students with Masks

Nationwide survey distributed to discover how political perspectives influenced pandemic reactions and how the pandemic affected mental health.

At the beginning of 2020, the pandemic changed the world.

Sarah Christensen, a BYU senior studying public health, was curious. How did people feel about the pandemic? What did they know about it?

Christensen's curiosity led her and public health professor Brianna Magnusson to send out a survey on March 31, 2020, to 1,030 adults ranging in age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status across the U.S. The survey asked participants questions to assess their attitudes and knowledge about this new virus while also collecting information about their political ideology, behavior changes, and mental health. Results led to key discoveries about how political ideology was the strongest predictor of an individual's attitudes about COVID-19 and how the pandemic had affected mental health. To read more about their research, follow this link to the peer-reviewed article published on September 24, 2020, in PLOS ONE, Political and personal reactions to COVID-19 during initial weeks of social distancing in the United States.

The survey results indicated that political ideology was the strongest predictor of reactions to the pandemic. Conservatives were more likely to feel that COVID-19 received too much media coverage and that people were generally overreacting. Liberals were more likely to report that the government had not done enough in response to the pandemic and more likely (although the difference was small) to adhere to social distancing guidelines. In short, participants were likely to support messaging from sources that mirrored their ideology.

“In light of this politicized health climate, we may want to consider making differential messaging to highlight values on both ends of the spectrum in hopes that the message will be more broadly absorbed,” Christensen said. As an example, Christensen shared how the mask message was initially framed as a way to keep communities safe and healthy. That messaging has now expanded to include economic motivations such as keeping businesses open.

Dr. Magunusson also noted how motivations affect behavior, saying, “Whenever we have a situation where we need to encourage specific types of behavior, we need to understand what people value to increase behavior changes.”

The pandemic has also affected mental health. Data from the survey shows that after just two weeks of social distancing measures in the U.S., depressive symptoms increased, especially for those adhering to the social distancing guidelines. Anxieties surrounding COVID-19 were also on the rise. Christensen explained that “these anxieties were felt most strongly in vulnerable groups: people living in poverty, people with less formal education, racial and ethnic minorities, and females.”

What can be done to help those negatively impacted by the pandemic? “We have an obligation and an opportunity to serve: to find ways to connect with family, friends, and maybe even people we haven’t talked to in a while,” Dr. Magnusson said. Speaking about the pandemic’s broader effects among more vulnerable groups, Christensen noted, “There is a myriad of problems that the pandemic has exacerbated. We can now see just how many holes we have in our social safety net. This project left me feeling more invigorated to patch up those holes so that the next time something like this happens, we can catch the people who might’ve otherwise fallen through.”

The pandemic has proved challenging while also providing several opportunities including the chance to create unity in the face of polarization, to strive for open-mindedness and objectivity, to take care of others, and to work toward improving problems the pandemic exposed.