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Pandemics, Politics, Mental Health, and an Opportunity

How have political perspectives influenced reactions to the pandemic? How has the pandemic affected mental health? In March, Dr. Brianna Magnusson and student Sarah Christensen sent out a nationwide survey to discover the answers. Here’s what they found.

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?

That curiosity led Christensen and Dr. Brianna Magnusson to send out a survey on March 31st to 1,030 adults from different age, gender, race, and socioeconomic groups across the U.S. They asked the participants questions assessing 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 for 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 24th in PLOS ONE, Political and personal reactions to COVID-19 during initial weeks of social distancing in the United States.

The results showed that political ideology was the strongest predictor of reactions to the pandemic. Conservatives were more likely to feel that COVID-19 was receiving 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.

This messaging about the pandemic has become increasingly polarized. Christensen said, “In light of this politized health climate, we may want to consider making differential messaging to highlight values on both ends of the spectrum in the hopes that the message will be more broadly absorbed.” 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.” As an example of highlighting values on both sides of the spectrum, Christensen noted how the message behind wearing masks in public 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.

The pandemic has also affected mental health. Data from the survey showed that after just two weeks of social distancing measures in the U.S., depressive symptoms had 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? Dr. Magnusson said, “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.” Speaking about the broader effects of the pandemic among more vulnerable groups, Christensen noted, “There are 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 changed the world, and it has also given the world an opportunity to let that change spark more change for good. It’s an opportunity to create unity in the face of polarization, to strive for open-mindedness and objectivity, to take care of family, friends, and strangers, and to get to work fixing the problems the pandemic has highlighted. It’s an opportunity.