Much has been written about the threat that COVID-19 poses to our physical health, but very little is known about the pandemic’s longstanding effects on our mental health and cognitive functioning.

A global team led by psychologists at UNSW Sydney will be exploring for the first time what they describe as this pandemic’s toxic combination of two extreme psychological stressors: existential threat and social isolation.

The longitudinal study recently launched online invites participants in Australia, the UK and US to evaluate their mood before and after the onset of the pandemic, and to track their cognitive function and social networks over the coming months.

It hopes to enlist more than 3000 participants over the next six months, with people as young as 11 and beyond the age of 65 able to participate online – and it has a special focus on two subgroups thought to be especially vulnerable to the shock of enforced isolation: adolescents and pregnant women.

Long-term effects

The study’s chief investigator, Dr Susanne Schweizer from UNSW’s School of Psychology explains why there is concern for the long-term effects of social isolation on younger generations.

Susanne Schweizer

Dr Susanne Schweizer. Photo: UNSW

“The COVID-19 pandemic has changed people’s lives so drastically that it is difficult to know how protracted the effects may be,” she says.

“We’re particularly interested in younger people because they are at a time of social reorientation away from the family towards their peers which is all of a sudden being disrupted by social distancing.”

Dr Schweizer and her colleagues are concerned that the longer-term effects of social isolation in this group may come at a cost to their cognitive development due to schools being closed as they are in the US and UK, or drastically changed as in the case of Australia.

“There has been such a disruption in their natural social interactions that they’re not able to engage in social relationships that are so key at this point in their development,” she says.

Added stress

The researchers have flagged pregnant women as similarly exposed to long-term effects of social isolation. Not only will expectant mothers need to be especially vigilant when facing the existential threat of a pandemic, social isolation may bring additional challenges that could affect their moods and cognitive development of their newborn child.

“We know stress during pregnancy can increase the risk of postpartum mental health problems,” Dr Schweizer says. “And in turn, postpartum mental health problems are a key risk factor for poorer mental health and poor cognitive development in their children. Through this study, we want to investigate what the consequences of this pandemic are on the mother and child – so that we can respond to their mental health needs now and in the future.”

Dr Schweizer says past studies have already established a link between social isolation in older people and reduced cognitive functioning. But in these cases, the isolation has occurred over a longer period during times of societal stability – a completely different scenario to where older people find themselves today.

“We also want to see whether these short-term social isolation implementations have an effect on cognition in older people. So we're looking at social, mental health and the cognitive domain across the lifespan, from the womb to old age. We want to be able to answer the question: what are the different implications for the different age groups?”

What’s in the study

Initially participants will be asked to complete an hour-long survey online in a laptop or smartphone browser to assess mood before and after the pandemic. They will be asked to evaluate their connections to people in their social network and will also be invited to complete tasks that assess working memory – the ability to store information in memory for short amounts of time. As incentive, participants have a chance to win a $100 Amazon voucher that will be awarded to every 100th person to complete the survey.

After three months – and then again after six – participants will again be asked to fill in a shorter survey to track progress in mood, cognitive function and social network.

“We hope that by the end of the study, we will have reliable and accurate data, so that we can qualify the longer-term effects of this pandemic. The unprecedented nature of it requires rapid and collaborative responses, and by working together with other research teams at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK and Oregon and Pittsburgh in the US, we are able ask these questions across different populations,” Dr Schweizer says.

“By investigating the impact of the pandemic on mental health and what happens when the protection of a social support network suddenly disappears, we will be much better positioned to respond to the future health care needs or our national and global populations.”

The study is one of 13 projects funded by UNSW’s Rapid Research Fund.