The European Union (EU) has awarded a 6 million euro grant to research conducted by Marit Sijbrandij, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology, and her partners. The study focuses on the long and short-term effects of the coronavirus crisis on mental health and the economy.
Although you have only just received your grant, you expect to have recommendations for government bodies within three months. That’s pretty ambitious.
“That’s right. As it turns out these EU COVID-19 projects are moving quickly anyway. We are still in the midst of the coronavirus crisis and governments are eager to receive accurate information. A lot of data has already been collected but what has defined this crisis is the feeling of flying blind, as Prime Minister Rutte has said before. We are working to pool all the available information in order to issue specific recommendations to improve mental health and wellbeing, also in connection with the economic consequences of the lockdown.”
So what is it you will be researching exactly?
“First of all, we want to focus our attention on the various cohort studies being conducted in different countries. How well are citizens complying with the measures in place? And why do some people refuse to bend to the rules? Which factors play a role in people’s vulnerability? But also: what are the economic consequences of the lockdown? To answer these questions we will be collecting information from various countries with varying degrees of lockdowns. Take Sweden for example, where the government decided to impose only minimal measures, and compare this to Spain, where for a while even children were banned from going outside. A lot of information is already available in the form of surveys, which we intend to combine. Moreover, project partners also have access to a number of major health registers in Sweden, Lombardy and the Greater Barcelona region.”
Is it even possible to compare countries with such different economies and lockdown levels?
“Yes, it is. Oxford University has published an online database of all lockdown measures and the times at which individual countries implemented their measures. Comparing various lockdown situations is a great way of gaining insight into the effects on the population and the economy. But lockdowns are also constantly changing. When we submitted our proposal, Australia, also a partner in this project, was still lockdown-free. However, a lockdown has since been imposed in the city of Melbourne. So even on a national level there are differences in the degrees of lockdowns.”
What about the second part of your research?
“Our study focuses on existing WHO prevention and treatment programmes for mental illness that may be offered by non-professional counsellors. We want to make these programmes available via teleconferencing and in person to vulnerable groups who may otherwise fall by the wayside. We are already frequently using these programmes for refugees and the results are promising in terms of combating feelings of depression, stress and anxiety. This leads us to believe that the programmes can also be successful in relieving mental health issues resulting from the lockdown.”
The fact that Albert Heijn decided to make its stamps available only online was reason for many seniors to stop collecting them. The online world is less appealing to many senior citizens. Are you at all concerned that your method may also end up excluding vulnerable individuals?
“That’s exactly why we want to train people to provide these programmes in person. By using existing structures such as nursing homes and sending newly-trained staff to those locations, you can ensure people are not left behind. But young people for example may prefer an online tool and they can also be vulnerable as a result of isolation and worries about the future.”
And what are your expectations?
“There are a lot of hypotheses associated with a study of this size. The great thing about a grant like this that you have plenty of options for research. For example, I am very interested in finding out whether higher levels of psychological stress contribute to an unwillingness to comply with lockdown measures. Governments tend to play on people’s fears: if you don’t comply then you will become sick and you could be in serious danger. But this approach can also make people recalcitrant and can even breed conspiracy theories. I wonder whether offering prospects and providing a positive outlook when people comply with measures might be a more successful approach. This grant allows us to study these ideas and the effects of effective programmes on reducing stress and anxiety.”