The research has two main aims:
- to describe the short and medium-term effects of the pandemic on mental health,
- investigate how changes in mood might impact on our health.
The experience of stress, and other negative moods, over protracted periods, creates a dysregulation of physiological pathways normally involved in achieving homeostasis. Chief amongst these is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the production of the hormone cortisol. Evidence shows that dysregulation in this hormone is associated with a range of adverse physical health outcomes, including outcomes related to the immune system and the inflammatory response. The significance of these adverse effects on the immune system is arguably heightened when the ‘threat’ in our environment is the highly infectious pathogen Covid-19 which is capable of giving rise to considerable morbidity and mortality.
The study will provide an understanding of the psychological and physical impact of the Covid-19 pandemic by measuring both self-reported psychological outcomes, as well as cortisol, to examine the extent to which the psychological effects translate into physiological distress, that may have implications for physical health.
Two main predictions can be made about the psychological impact of the Covid-19 pandemic according to the Stress & Coping Theory. First, individuals will vary in their experience of stress according to their resources (for example, individuals who perceive they are at increased risk of the virus, may experience greater anxiety). Second, that prescribed social distancing measures may serve to amplify the psychological response because one of our key resources against stress (social support) is diminished.
The study will document the psychological impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in a community cohort within the first few weeks of social distancing measures being introduced and up to 9 months later. In addition, the team will:
- Examine which social groups (e.g., age, gender, ethnicity) are at greatest risk of psychological morbidity.
- Explore the modifiable psychological and social constructs associated with mental health outcomes, with a view to informing future interventions.
- Determine whether and how the psychological impact of the pandemic might affect physical health via alterations in the stress biomarker cortisol