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Fear of Coronavirus Results in Negative Psychological Health, Precautionary Behaviors

Extended periods of quarantine result in depression and fear of COVID-19 has a negative psychological effect on people, according to a recent University of Idaho study.

Clarissa Richardson, an assistant professor of psychology at U of I’s Department of Psychology and Communication Studies, said a series of surveys conducted on a pool of 300 participants nationwide to determine the psychological effects of the coronavirus pandemic showed that people who reported high levels of quarantine also reported higher levels of depression and, in some cases, PTSD symptoms.

“Fear surrounding COVID-19 largely predicted negative psychological health and was significantly correlated with PTSD symptoms, depression, anxiety and stress,” Richardson said. “Yet, those with higher fear also were more likely to engage in precautionary behaviors than those with lower fear.”

Clarissa Richardson
Clarissa Richardson

The surveys, conducted as part of an IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) undergraduate student fellowship awarded to U of I student Dawn Amos, included an inquiry of mask-wearing habits. It also explored perceptions of the effectiveness of masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“Originally the goal was to assess psychological impact,” Richardson said.

Questions explored respondents’ experience under quarantine, whether they were experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness, and if they felt they were receiving the social support they needed.

“We asked, ‘What was the most stressful part of your day?’,” Richardson said.

Dawn Amos
Student Dawn Amos was awarded an INBRE undergraduate student fellowship to determine the psychological effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some respondents feared going to the grocery store, while others said watching the news about the coronavirus made them anxious, and that shutdowns of businesses and social activities added to their anxiety. Others said they feared for their life, and that their fears kept them awake at night.

Surveys returned between March and May did not inquire about mask-wearing habits or attitudes toward masks. A June survey of 299 respondents however brought masks into the conversation with interesting results, Richardson said.

“In June the main focus was on masks,” Richardson said. “We asked a variety of questions.”

Questions examined political leanings and the news programs respondents preferred.

“Political affiliation predicted engagement in precautionary behaviors, with Democrats significantly more likely to quarantine, physically distance, wear a mask, and believe in the effectiveness of masks than other party affiliates,” Richardson said. “This was also consistent with news channel preference, with individuals who received their news from MSNBC and CNN being more likely to wear masks than individuals who watched FOX News.”

Richardson said the research could be used to better target a broader audience with current data on mask efficacy, and to garner mental health resources for people undergoing long-term quarantines.

Further research is needed to determine how fear and having accurate knowledge of coronavirus and its impact may promote health behaviors to limit the spread of COVID-19, she said.

“In summary, there are clear negative psychological outcomes associated with higher levels of quarantine. And it can be observed that politics have complicated messaging on mask effectiveness,” Richardson said.

By Ralph Bartholdt, Communications Manager
September 2020

Psychology & Communication

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