University research targets social distancing compliance, mental health

The study will analyze the physical distancing habits and mental health of older adults and young families throughout Minnesota.

Illustration by Eva Berezovsky

Eva Berezovsky

Illustration by Eva Berezovsky

Becca Most

A new University of Minnesota public health study launching this week will look at factors that influence social distancing compliance as well as how these measures affect mental health.

Funded in part by a University COVID-19 rapid response grant, the study will monitor how social distancing behaviors and mental well-being change over time. The study consists of several surveys that ask participants questions about preparedness, perceived risk and physical interactions with others.

“We’re trying to connect the dots between what people are experiencing and how they are living through these community containment orders,” said Gillian Tarr, one of the main researchers of the project.

The researchers will target two groups: families with younger children and adults over 50. The team will analyze how effective social distancing policies are and what factors influence how Minnesotans are following them.

Families in particular have unique stressors like balancing child care, distance learning and full-time work. Older Minnesotans are also more at risk and more likely to have prolonged social distancing recommendations.

Marizen Ramirez, an associate researcher on the project, said there is little published research that tracks behavior and stress response to pandemics or disasters. Much of this kind of research is conducted before or after a traumatic event, which makes this study all the more important, she said.

“Here is an opportunity for us to map behaviors and stress levels as the disaster is unfolding,” she said. 

In understanding how people are coping with the pandemic as policies and situations change, Ramirez said she hopes their work will inform social distancing guidelines and procedures for future disasters.

Tarr said she wants to look at social distancing with equity in mind and understands that not everyone can be “compliant” with government measures due to their circumstances. 

By the end of the study, the team wants to look at any lingering mental health effects of the pandemic. Some of these may be related to financial stressors, the impact of social or physical isolation, domestic violence or loss. 

For some family therapists, this research can be helpful in determining how health professionals can foster better support networks, said Katie Lingras, an assistant professor in the University’s Department of Psychiatry.

The pandemic has highlighted how reliant families are on support systems like schools and after-school activities, Lingras said. Many of the parents she sees are extremely stressed.

“There’s not a lot of evidence, or any evidence really, for what the impact of a pandemic is,” she said. “The sooner that we can understand what the impacts are, the earlier we can intervene.”