During the COVID-19 pandemic, 2.6 billion people were under a mandate to stay at home. According to psychologist Elke Van Hoof of Free University of Brussels-VUB, [the lockdown] "is arguably the largest psychological experiment ever conducted." What impact will COVID-19 have on the planet's mental health? The scientific study of psychological resilience is not a new field. But COVID-19 is fairly unique in the range of stressors it triggers, from the death of loved ones to isolation, devastating financial loss, and uncertainty about what comes next. Meanwhile, we actually aren't all "in the same boat." In Scientific American, Lydia Denworth surveys the real-time research on what we can learn from all this about resilience and how to increase it for the next time. From Scientific American:
Individual resilience is further complicated by the fact that this pandemic has not affected each person in the same way. For all that is shared–the coronavirus has struck every level of society and left few lives unchanged–there has been tremendous variation in the disruption and devastation experienced. Consider Brooklyn, just one borough in hard-hit New York City. Residents who started the year living or working within a few miles of one another have very different stories of illness, loss and navigating the challenges of social distancing. How quickly and how well individuals, businesses and organizations recover will depend on the jobs, insurance and health they had when this started, on whether they have endured hassle or heartbreak, and on whether they can tap financial resources and social support.
The pandemic has laid bare the inequities in the American health care system and economic safety net. Black and Latino Americans are dying at much higher rates than white Americans. "When we talk about preexisting conditions, it isn't just if I'm obese, it's our society's preexisting condition," says medical anthropologist Carol Worthman of Emory University, an expert in global mental health. The scientific study of psychological resilience is not a new field. But COVID-19 is fairly unique in that it's triggering a wide range of stressors, from the death of loved ones, isolation, and massive financial loss to uncertainty about what happens next.
Fortunately, the unprecedented pandemic is leading to unprecedented science not just in virology but on mental health and resilience. Behavioral scientists are measuring the psychological toll in real time and striving to identify what helps people cope. Unlike, say, the September 11 terrorist attacks or Hurricane Katrina, which occurred over a finite period even though their effects were drawn out, the open-ended time frame for COVID-19 allows for new kinds of longitudinal studies and research directions. The sudden mass switch to virtual forms of working and socializing is expected to jump-start more nuanced investigations into what makes social interaction satisfying–or stultifying. If researchers meet the challenge of COVID-19, says psychiatrist Dennis Charney of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, "there will be a whole new science of resilience. We could learn how to help people become more resilient before these things happen."