Quantifying COVID-19’s Impact on Mental Health

Falk College professor Tiago Barreira looks at the virus’s effect on mental health in an effort to guide treatment for the future.

A Syracuse University Story by Shaina M. Hill originally published on May 15, 2020.

Tiago Barreira PortraitThe public has changed the ways they live and work due to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic on physical health. This upheaval of daily routines and uncertainty for the future has led to increased stress, loneliness, fear, anxiety, sadness and worrying, which has taken a toll on mental health.

Tiago Barreira, assistant professor of exercise science at Falk College, is the lead investigator on a study contemplating the effects on mental health during this time when many are grappling with altered daily routines, financial pressures and social isolation.

“The changes and events related to COVID-19 are already being recognized as having a great impact on many aspects of our lives, including mental health,” he says. “Collecting data to understand its effects will help guide treatment for mental health issues in the future.”

When so much uncertainty exists, preexisting mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression, can worsen. By learning more about the mental health status of adults during this time, Barreira hopes to contribute to a larger discussion about how to help people impacted by events and restrictions related to COVID-19.

“This study is one of many research projects that are being conducted on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says. “The combination of research will be very helpful to guide policy and treatment of mental health.”

Barreira’s primary research at Syracuse University has been in determining the impact of physical behaviors—such as sleep, sedentary behavior and physical activity—on health. With the crisis unfolding, he began to think about the relationship between physical behaviors and mental health. Barreira developed a research study with his colleague, Kevin Heffernan, Dean’s associate professor of exercise science at Falk College.

The study uses a series of questionnaires that look at an individual’s mental health conditions and behaviors, financial situation and other criteria, and whether they have taken any steps to improve their mental health. Some questions are left open-ended to account for variables. One of the main behaviors the study is interested in is physical activity and what role, if any, it plays in coping with stress.

“We hope we’ll be able to identify common traits and actions from those who were able to maintain a better mental health status,” he says.

By comparing questionnaire respondents’ mental health levels to existing information and demonstrating what coping activities improved the mindset for individuals, Barreira hopes policymakers will be able to create health initiatives to benefit the public

Barreira is still recruiting participants and hopes to complete the study and publish its findings soon. “The research is only as good as the data that is collected,” he says. “We still need many more respondents to be able to have confidence in our findings.”

Barreira feels his research has great importance for the mental health of a population facing tremendous uncertainty. He cites a recent interview with The Daily Show host Trevor Noah in which New York governor Andrew Cuomo said he fears “an entire generation” of Americans will face PTSD due to COVID-19.

“This is a unique situation that is affecting everyone in the country,” Barreira says. “Mental health issues will be one of the larger issues that we will face in the future and understanding its causes and potential treatments will be key.”

If you would like to be a part of this important research, please complete the questionnaire.