Mental health during Covid-19

CovSocial project examines consequences of pandemic-related restrictions for Berlin's population

November 24, 2021

The CovSocial project aims to shed light on how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the emotional well-being and behaviour of Berliners. The research network surveyed a large number of Berliners online about how they experienced the pandemic and how their lives changed during this time. The results show a shock effect during the first lockdown and a fatigue effect during the second lockdown. This resulted in individuals feeling much more stressed, anxious and depressed during the second lockdown in March 2021 than they did a year earlier in March 2020 during the first lockdown. Social cohesion among citizens also decreased significantly as a result of the measures. Younger people and women suffered the most from the restrictions. The initial findings of the study are clearly presented in a brochure published today and accessible online.

The measures imposed to contain the pandemic not only had an economic impact, but also led to considerable social restrictions. The research team led by study director Tania Singer, scientific director at the Max Planck Society's Social Neuroscience Research Group in Berlin and visiting professor at the Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, examined the consequences of these pandemic-related restrictions on people's mental health as well as social cohesion from January 2020 to April 2021.

CovSocial researcher Malvika Godara summarises the initial findings: "In the first lockdown from mid-March to mid-April 2020, participants reported an acute increase in depression, anxiety, loneliness and stress. After the lockdowns, the respondents' emotional state improved significantly. However, the initial level was rarely reached again. During the prolonged lockdown from October 2020 into spring 2021, mental health declined again, ending up at the lowest point so far in the course of the pandemic."

Acceptance of the situation

The restrictions during the pandemic also changed the ability to adapt and deal with the challenges of everyday life: "During the two lockdowns, the life satisfaction, optimism and positive feelings of the Berliners participating in the survey decreased drastically. Especially during the first lockdown, the respondents said that they were less interested in changing their situation as such than in accepting the situation as a reaction to the stress," explains Tania Singer. As another coping strategy, people spent more time in nature and did sports, especially during the first lockdown and after the relaxation in June 2020.

Social cohesion between people also suffered considerably as a result of the measures. They participated much less in social and civic life. "While trust in close people and neighbours remained stable throughout the pandemic, it decreased significantly in institutions such as the health system and the government at the end of the second lockdown. Interestingly, people trusted institutions such as the police, the media or the Berlin Senate more than the rest of the population," says Tania Singer. To compensate for the reduced personal interactions, women in particular made greater use of social media during the two lockdowns.

Ways out of loneliness

In the second phase of the project, starting in May 2021, about 300 Berliners from the CovSocial project were invited to participate in ten-week mental online interventions. In this way, the CovSocial team wants to investigate their influence on health, socio-emotional situation and social behaviour. "Repeated interventions such as multiple lockdowns run the risk of increasing mental health distress and failure to recover. In addition, loneliness in the population increases with each lockdown. This could result in serious stress-related and mental illnesses such as depression. Future analyses of the findings should shed light on which groups of people need the most protection and which mental health interventions best reduce loneliness and mental distress," says Tania Singer.

CovSocial is funded by the Max Planck Society as well as by start-up funding from the Berlin University Alliance - the network of excellence consisting of Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin and Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin. In addition to study leader Tania Singer, scientific director of the Max Planck Society's Social Neuroscience Research Group in Berlin, the research team includes other cooperation partners from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin and the Humboldt University of Berlin.

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