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How the media may be making the COVID-19 mental health epidemic worse

8 Comments
By J Brian Houston and Jennifer M First

Since the pandemic began, anxiety rates in the U.S. have tripled; the rate of depression has quadrupled. Now research is suggesting the media is part of the problem. Constantly watching and reading news about COVID-19 may be hazardous for your mental health.

We are professors who study the psychological effects on people caught up in crisis, violence and natural disasters. COVID-19 surely qualifies as a crisis, and our survey of more than 1,500 U.S. adults clearly showed that those experiencing the most media exposure about the pandemic had more stress and depression.

It’s understandable. The intimations of death and suffering, and the images of overwhelmed hospitals and intubated patients can be terrifying. COVID-19 has created an infodemic; members of the public are overwhelmed with more information than they can manage. And much of that information, especially online, includes disturbing rumors, conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated statements that confuse, mislead and frighten.

Stress worse for some than others

A June 2020 study of 5,412 U.S. adults says 40% of respondents reported struggling with mental health or substance use issues. This finding did not address whether respondents had COVID-19. Since then, some people who had COVID-19 are now reporting mental health issues that appeared within 90 days after their illness subsided.

Taking care of a relative or friend with the virus might result in mental health problems, and even just knowing someone with COVID-19 can be stressful. And if a family member or friend dies from it, anxiety and depression often follow the grief. This is even more likely if the individual dies alone – or if a memorial isn’t possible because of the pandemic.

Essential workers, from hospitals to grocery stores, have a higher risk for COVID-related mental health problems. This is particularly true for health care workers caring for patients who ultimately died from the virus.

Black and Hispanic adults also report more mental health issues, including substance abuse and thoughts of suicide. Having access to fewer resources and experiencing the systemic racism running through much of U.S. health care may be two of the factors. The COVID-19 pandemic also intersected with episodes of police violence toward Black Americans. This alone may have exacerbated mental health problems.

Children, young adults and college students also show comparatively worse mental health reactions. This could be due to the disconnect they feel, brought on by the isolation from peers, the loss of support from teachers and the disappearance of daily structure.

Setting limits essential

Staying informed is critical, of course. But monitor how much media you’re consuming, and assess how it affects you. If you are constantly worrying, feeling overwhelmed, or having difficulty sleeping, you may be taking in too much COVID media. If this is happening to you, take a break from the news and do other things to help calm your mind.

Parents should frequently check in with children to see how they are affected. Listening to and validating their concerns – and then providing honest responses to their questions – can be enormously helpful. If a child is having difficulty talking about it, the adult can start with open-ended questions (“How do you feel about what is happening?”). Reassure children that everything is being done to protect them and discuss ways to stay safe: Wear a mask, socially distance, wash hands.

Finally, you can model and encourage good coping skills for your children. Remind young people that good things are still happening in the world. Work together to list healthy ways to cope with COVID-19 stress. Then do them. These activities will help your children cope – and it will be good for you too.

J Brian Houston, PhD, is Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri and is Director for the Disaster and Community Crisis Center (DCC) at the University of Missouri. **Jennifer M First is Assistant Professor, University of Tennessee **Department of Public Health faculty

The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

© The Conversation

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

8 Comments
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I saw the headline on this and thought good, maybe some of the mental health professionals are finally going to wake up to their own fear-mongering on mental issues in the time of Covid, misrepresenting normal and understandable levels of concern or an occasional dark thought as mental illness, if not now then six months down the track, requiring treatment of course by those very same mental health professionals who put such ideas into people's heads in the first place.

But no. It was the media, again.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

And much of that information, especially online, includes disturbing rumors, conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated statements that confuse, mislead and frighten.

I wonder if there are any examples of a website based here in Japan where comment promoting conspiracy theories saying that the virus is a Chinese bioweapon, that it doesn't kill anyone, that the vaccine is a Bill Gates plot to control the world, that the vaccine will change DNA, and that actually the virus is lethal are allowed to go unchallenged and unmoderated.

I can't think of any. Can anyone help me out?

6 ( +7 / -1 )

The social isolations aren't helping things, and the lies and unrest the Trump dictatorship stirred up last year made things even worse for most Americans. He's an irresponsible scumbag.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

This is well meta.

One thing for sure; it has driven a lot of people down some very strange and dark rabbit holes.

It's actually very sad, trying to persuade them that they are out of touch with reality. Especially if it's friends and family, not just some random online.

I wonder if there are any examples of a website based here in Japan where comment promoting conspiracy theories saying that the virus is a Chinese bioweapon, that it doesn't kill anyone, that the vaccine is a Bill Gates plot to control the world, that the vaccine will change DNA, and that actually the virus is lethal are allowed to go unchallenged and unmoderated.

Now that would be just plain irresponsible. Can't see it happening, thankfully.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Blacks and Hispanics with fewer resources? I would be multiple happy if I had $600 or $1400 dollars like those...lol

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Blacks and Hispanics with fewer resources? I would be multiple happy if I had $600 or $1400 dollars like those...lol

There haven't been any $1400 checks.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Can you write for The Conversation?

To be published by The Conversation you must be currently employed as a researcher or academic with a university or research institution. PhD candidates under supervision by an academic can write for us, but we don’t currently publish articles from Masters students.

https://theconversation.com/become-an-author

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

@expat, good of you to post that bit of information. I've been reading The Conversation for a long time, and I appreciate its publishing policy. I wish more publishers would demonstrate similar discretion, albeit not so strict. We'd get better news, that's for sure.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

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