Case Western Reserve team studying ‘unprecedented’ levels of trauma caused by COVID-19 pandemic

headshot of Megan R. Holmes

The COVID-19 pandemic could inflict long-lasting emotional trauma on an unprecedented global scale, leaving millions grappling with debilitating psychological disorders, according to a new study commissioned by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University.

“There are some valid concerns that this coronavirus pandemic could cause emotional trauma and PTSD at a level we’ve never seen before,” said Megan Holmes, an associate professor of social work and the founding director of the Center on Trauma and Adversity at the university’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.

Currently, the United States has the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the world. Testing for the virus has been slow to keep up with the spread, but the effort is at least underway. Little is known, however, of the pandemic’s impact on mental health of Americans.

Holmes assembled a team of a half-dozen researchers—from the Center on Trauma and Adversity, the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing and the School of Medicine—to study the issue.

In just two weeks, researchers gathered nearly 600 participants for the pilot study. The idea, she said, is to collect and analyze survey responses about how the novel coronavirus may affect participants’ emotional well-being and the coping strategies they’re using to minimize emotional distress.

“Our pilot data showed that nearly 90% of the sample reported experiencing one or more post-traumatic stress symptom, a rate that is much higher than reported for other traumatic events,” Holmes said.

The preliminary results highlighted that 86% of respondents experienced at least one trauma symptom, while 94% reported some levels of grief.

Holmes noted that this pandemic is set apart from other traumatic events, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks or World War II, because the psychological stress caused by those events was limited by geography.

“They also did not involve mandatory quarantines or isolation and did not have ongoing stressors of physical-health threats—all which independently have been documented by research to increase anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms,” she said.

The team is continuously updating their COVID-19 Coping Strategies webpage based on participant identifying effective coping strategies aimed at reducing coronavirus-related psychological stress.

“Given the quarantine circumstances, individuals are forced to adapt their coping strategies to manage the stress of COVID-19,” Holmes said.

The next step of this research, she said, is to collect a national representative sample in order to produce state and national estimates of mental health symptoms. Researchers are still accepting study participants. Adults can participate online.

This story appeared in The Daily on May 1, 2020.