March 22, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 106—Pandemic isolation, and children’s mental health

With social distancing requirements in place and Zoom interactions becoming the new normal, it’s safe to say the last year has been isolating for many – but some people have been affected more strongly than others. A new study from IU’s Kelly Wierenga and Case Western Reserve University’s Scott Emory Moore finds that the pandemic has exacerbated already existing psychosocial and emotional issues experienced by adults who identify as sexual or gender minorities (or SGM), a group who often seeks comfort and support from their greater community, which the pandemic has greatly restricted. Wierenga, an assistant professor in the IU School of Nursing, says we didn’t know early on in the pandemic how these sudden changes would affect people’s overall mental and physical health. A big focus of Wierenga’s research is to determine whether public health interventions needed to minimize the risk of spreading the virus could potentially negatively influence a person’s health, especially their social and mental health. Wierenga and others conducted an online study of 1,380 US adults – 290 of whom were of a sexual or gender minority – in the early months of the pandemic and found that people who identify as SGM appear to have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic both physically and mentally. The researchers also found that SGM respondents experienced more frequent negative physical symptoms and evidence of anxiety or depression symptoms during the first three months of the pandemic. Wierenga says it is critical to recognize that the social and emotional needs of individuals are unique, and there are groups who are suffering disproportionately. For SGM individuals who often get support from their “family of choice,” the pandemic greatly impacted their access to this key support system, which Wierenga says causes many people to face a difficult choice between socializing against health recommendations or experiencing isolation.

In other news, one IU expert has spent the last year working hard to understand the pandemic’s impact on children’s mental health needs. Early in 2020, many mental health service providers quickly transitioned to offering virtual care. But Ukamaka Oruche, an associate professor in the IU School of Nursing, says while that quick pivot was good for many kids in need, it also exposed a major health disparity – access to technology. That access is not equitable across all segments of the population. Oruche says there is still a lot to be learned about using telehealth in the future. A hybrid model using both in-person and virtual care, as well as alternative approaches, may help reach children who still need additional support or don’t have regular access to the Internet. Oruche says technological disparities may also extend to how kids are faring in school. Student failure this year may be due in large part to students’ lack of access to required technology, she says, which can lead to feelings of isolation and failure for some kids, ultimately contributing to poor health outcomes.