Study: The relationship of COVID-19 related stress and media consumption with schizotypy, depression and anxiety. Image Credit: Ahmet Misirligul/Shutterstock
A preprint version of the study is available on the medRxiv* server, while the article undergoes peer review.
COVID-19 pandemic stress
Fear of infection by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is not the only pandemic-related stressor. Social restrictions, financial preoccupations, task overload, inadequate information, frustration, and boredom are also stressors that affect mental health.
Several studies have demonstrated that severe social distancing measures have had an impact on the mental health of people all over the world. In Germany and the UK, several studies have reported increased levels of stress and mental distress, fear, anxiety, and depression among the populations.
There is an additional risk of unhealthy behaviors, like excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs, for coping with the stress. Some studies report increased alcohol sales, while others report reduced alcohol consumption during the pandemic.
Another coping strategy is excessive media consumption. While media provides essential information about the pandemic, recent developments, and protective measures, it is also a source of rumors and misinformation. This also adds to stress levels. The world health organization (WHO) has started using the term 'infodemic' in the context of the current pandemic as;
a tsunami of misinformation, hate, scapegoating and scare-mongering has been unleashed.”
Several studies indicate that more than three hours of daily media consumption is associated with poor mental health.
Schizotypal traits and social adversity
Schizotypy refers to traits such as disorganized thinking and interpersonal difficulties that may increase vulnerability to schizophrenia. It is considered a latent multidimensional personality trait that is present in every person in varying degrees. Traits include paranoia, lack of trust, and disorganized thinking which are similar to schizophrenia.
One study shows that people having high schizotypy scores have a more pronounced fear of illness and are likely to think that they have COVID-19 symptoms. Furthermore, people with low schizotypy scores have varied strategies for coping with the fear of COVID-19. People with high schizotypal traits are likely to succumb to media misinformation and conspiracist ideation. They are also more prone to psychosis due to social distancing and the economic consequences of lockdown.
Social adversity refers to issues like violent crime, segregation, exposure to delinquent peers, poverty, and poor parenting as risk factors that may lead to antisocial behavior.
In this study, the investigators assessed schizotypy, depression, anxiety, healthy and unhealthy behaviors, and a range of sociodemographic scores using online surveys from residents of Germany and the United Kingdom over one year during the COVID-19 pandemic. They collected data during four time periods - April/ May 2020 (781 individuals), September/ October 2020 (498 individuals), January/ February 2021 (544 individuals) and May 2021 (486 individuals). Twenty-six individuals participated in all four surveys.
COVID-19 related life concerns
This study showed that COVID-19 related life concerns were significantly associated with schizotypy in the September/ October 2020 and May 2021 surveys. They were associated with anxiety and depressive symptoms in all surveys. Social adversity significantly affected the expression of schizotypal traits in all but the April/May 2020 survey. It affected depressive and anxiety symptoms in all samples. In this study, more than four hours of media consumption per day caused the relationship of COVID-19 related life concerns and schizotypal traits in the January/February 2021 survey. Also, excessive media consumption was associated with increased depression and anxiety-related symptoms in people afflicted by COVID-19.
Thus, the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic and social restrictions have a strong impact on mental well-being, especially the expression of schizotypal traits. This negative impact is further exacerbated by excessive media consumption. This is critical for people with high schizotypal traits.
Limitations of the study
Four samples were collected at different time points. There is a possibility of unmeasured confounding. Thus, the altered associations observed may not reflect the changing impact of the pandemic. The statistical models used in this study are highly complex and do not strictly meet the criteria for model fit.
Implications of the study
This study shows that during extreme situations such as a global pandemic that require lockdowns and social distancing, sustained meaningful relationships and a healthy lifestyle are necessary to maintain mental health.
There is a need for protective measures such as social support networks, psychoeducation, media education, and treatment for common mental disorders to support those prone to increased schizotypy.