During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when shops, stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues were closed, and socializing was restricted, many people experienced extreme stress due to the various measures implemented by governments. A study conducted by a team from the University of Würzburg and the university hospital examined how these experiences affected the mental health and quality of life of individuals, particularly focusing on the impact of anxiety and the role of support from friends and colleagues.
The study found that anxiety played a central role in the complex mix of variables and influencing factors related to mental health and quality of life. Gender-specific differences were observed, with anxiety levels increasing in men along with concerns about their jobs, whereas women experienced increased anxiety levels in parallel with worries about family and friends. Interestingly, women demonstrated an improved quality of life when receiving support from friends and family, while this phenomenon was not evident in men.
“In the past, numerous studies have investigated the influence of psychosocial factors such as support from friends and colleagues and financial, professional or personal worries on mental-health”>mental health and the quality of life. Yet, data on whether these correlations are the same for men and women were lacking,” stated Grit Hein, explaining the background to the study. Broadening earlier studies, the Würzburg research team has therefore now examined the influence of these factors in relation to gender.
The research, led by Professor Grit Hein and postdoc Martin Weiß, was published in the journal Scientific Reports. The study was conducted on a cohort of around 5,000 randomly selected participants from the general population of Würzburg, who were part of the STAAB study, initially focused on cardiovascular diseases but expanded to include the psychosocial impacts of the pandemic.
To evaluate the data, Hein and her team used a special method: the so-called network analysis. “Analyses based on a network approach enable a graphical representation of all variables as individual nodes,” Hein describes. Thus, it is possible to identify variables that are particularly related to other variables. The network can, for example, show complex relationships between symptoms of different mental disorders and thus explain possible comorbidities.
Grit Hein and Martin Weiß were hardly surprised by the results. “The observation that men are more strongly associated with work and women more strongly with family and friends can be traced back to traditional gender norms and roles,” Hein describes. Hence, men usually feel more affected by job insecurity and unemployment, which leads to higher psychological stress. Women, on the other hand, experience more strain when they feel that they are neglecting their family.
It is also plausible that women cope better psychologically when they receive support from friends and family: “This is in line with the traditional female family role, which includes a stronger tendency to maintain close social contacts and to seek social support in order to reduce stress and increase well-being,” states Hein.
Out of the total participants (1,520 women and 1,370 men) aged between 34 and 85 years, responses were collected between June and October 2020 through an extensive questionnaire. Participants were asked about their mental health, the level of support from their social environment, colleagues, and superiors, as well as their ability to discuss problems with others. The impact of bans on contact with parents and grandparents, work-related stress, and financial concerns were also explored.
The study shed light on how anxiety and various sources of support contributed to the mental well-being and quality of life of individuals during the challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even though these findings are unambiguous, the study leaders point to a number of limitations. The most important: “Since the COVID-19 pandemic presented a very specific context, it remains to be clarified whether our results are transferable to general pandemic-independent situations.” One finding, however, is indisputable: “Our results underline the need to consider social aspects in therapeutic interventions in order to improve the mental-health”>mental health of women and men.”
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