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USF study investigates COVID-19 effects on mental health

With the world practicing social distancing, USF researchers are looking into the relationship between feelings of loneliness and socialization patterns of Floridians with depression and anxiety. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

USF is launching a new research study that will look into how loneliness affects individuals in a period of social distancing — something that USF students have been exposed to with the halt of campus-related activities.

Among 14 different research projects launched by the USF Pandemic Response Research Network (PRRN), the “Social Closeness Despite Social Distance: A Study of Strategies to Fight Loneliness During the COVID-19 Pandemic” will look into how the coronavirus  (COVID-19) pandemic’s effects on society will affect individuals and their mental health, especially those who suffer from depression and anxiety, according to the PRRN’s website.

The study, funded by a USF COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Grants program, is led by Dr. Fallon Goodman, a professor from the USF Department of Psychology and director of the Emotion and Resilience Laboratory.

The study will include 300 participants from Florida who are at least 18 or older and face challenges combating their anxiety and depression. 

For undergraduate students, the university is often the central focus of life — it’s where students attend classes, jobs, clubs, intramural sports and gyms. For some, it’s even where they eat and sleep. Now that it’s closed and most of the community is isolated, combating loneliness amid social isolation will be a challenge. 

“People have far fewer opportunities for social connection — this is problematic because we as humans are hardwired for social connection,” said Goodman in a video May 14 regarding the upcoming project. “But as the COVID pandemic introduces a whole set of unprecedented stressors, people have fewer social supports to lean on to cope with those stressors.”

“So, people have to be more intentional about seeking out those support systems.”

The study involves daily surveys sent to the participants’ cellphones over two weeks. The participants will report what social interaction they had for each day along with their mood and level of distress.

“The purpose of the study is to understand how different patterns of socializing increase or decrease loneliness,” said Goodman. “So, which types of patterns for which individuals increase feelings of social connection and decrease feelings of loneliness.”

Collecting data from these individuals digitally is just one part of the project’s ability to conduct research remotely to maintain social distance. 

“The benefit of this study the way it’s designed is everything is conducted remotely,” said Goodman. “[Our lab] meets each week through [Microsoft] Teams to coordinate the study’s logistics and process from our end.”

Goodman is working with a team of eight graduate students and undergraduate research assistants to conduct the study. The team will collect data from its participants until August and is expected to finalize the study by Oct. 31.

The data collected will be used to analyze trends and patterns across all participants on how social interaction and feelings of loneliness are related.  

One of Goodman’s goals for this study is to take the next step in decreasing the stigma around mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression.

“I want to demonstrate how even people struggling with mental illness or struggling personally, I want to demonstrate how these vulnerable individuals can and do still find moments of joy and meaning and connection in their daily lives,” said Goodman. “Part of addressing some of mental illness stigma is understanding the complexities of people with these different pathologies and illnesses.”

Along with a broader analysis, each participant will receive an individualized report about their relationships and social patterns and how it affects their mood.

The findings of the study can have significant implications, especially for the student body. 

In a survey of 2,000 participants conducted by nonprofit organization Active Minds, 80 percent of college students said that COVID-19 has had a negative effect on their mental health and 20 percent said their mental health has “significantly worsened.” Of those who responded to Active Minds’ survey, 80 percent said they experienced loneliness or isolation. 

“We want to understand how, even people who are most vulnerable to loneliness — people who struggle interpersonally — how they can still maintain social connection, even during social distancing,” said Goodman. “Just because you’re feeling depressed or you have clinical depression, that doesn’t mean that you are entirely devoid of social connection and well-being.”

For Goodman, these individualized reports are one of her favorite parts about the study.

“Basically, for each person, we are going to map out what their social life looks like, how it relates to their mood, loneliness, anxiety and depression,” said Goodman. “It gives them this direct feedback and sort of this portrait of what their social life looks like.”

Understanding one’s relationship with different socialization patterns can prove instrumental in helping people during this time, especially because socializing can provide benefits to both mental and physical health, according to Dr. Angela Troyer in an article from Psychology Today. 

One of Goodman’s goals is for the study’s participants to receive the individualized feedback and see how their relationships with socializing benefit them and encourage them to continue these practices.

“The principle ‘what’s measured matters’ keeps coming to mind,” said Goodman. “So if the personalized profiles have an effect where people can pinpoint what is helping or hurting their loneliness and connection then that would be an indication of success.” 

Even those who aren’t direct participants in the study can benefit from its design — recognizing how certain patterns of socialization affect how you feel — and use it to help themselves find what assists in their mental wellness. 

“We hope that we can build a model or framework to think about loneliness, understand what makes it better or worse, and scale that out on a national level to build this infrastructure where people can start to track their patterns and work backward and figure out what’s helping and what’s not helping,” said Goodman. 

While the study is not geared toward a specific community, Goodman still sees it having implications for USF as it transitions back to campus life in the fall. 

“We’re not sure what [the fall] is going to look like in terms of classes, we have a lot of student-athletes, we have international students, there are going to be a whole host of challenges that USF students are facing in the fall,” said Goodman. 

“If we can do our part with this study to understand and start to pick out some things that might help out with social connection when a lot of these social support structures are either not going to be there at all or going to be in a diminished capacity, then [the study] is sort of a stand-in until life returns to some semblance of normalcy.”