Research Spotlight: Assessing COVID-19’s effects on mental health with Dr. Rachel Tambling

A man sits in his therapist’s chair, visibly distressed. Researchers at the UConn looked into how COVID-19 is affecting mental health. Photo by @tjump/Unsplash

Researchers at the University of Connecticut are looking into how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting mental health. One such researcher is Rachel Tambling, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences. 

In typical years, Tambling researches clinical processes and outcomes. This means research into why people seek help for their mental health, how they seek help and whether they stick with it.  

However, COVID has changed the path of some of Tambling’s research. Since the pandemic began, Tambling has started to look into its effects on mental health.  

Professor Rachel Tambling, associate professor at UConn’s Human Development and Family Services department. Tambling led the study on COVID-19’s impact on mental health. (Photo courtesy of HDFS UConn)

“I think that this is a really unique time in our country for mental health. I wanted to work with my colleagues on some research that would start to articulate the mental health impacts of a global pandemic,” Tambling explained.  

This has taken a number of different forms. Tambling has contributed to studies on  how parents talk to their children about COVID, what quarantine does for our mental health and whether the pandemic has had on an impact on the effectiveness of couples’ therapy.  

What Tambling and other researchers found in researching pandemic mental health was distressing. Rates of anxiety and depression are spiking during COVID-19.  

“Our rates of depression that we’re finding in community samples and our work are parallel to what we would normally find in a clinical sample, like an in-treatment sample prior to the pandemic. It’s scary. We’re dealing with massive rates of depression and very little help-seeking,” Tambling said.  

One study Tambling worked on is titled “Measuring Cumulative Stressfulness: Psychometric Properties of the COVID-19 Stressors Scale.” This study was done in collaboration with UConn researchers Beth S. Russell, Crystal L. Park and Michael Fendrich, as well as Kevin Hynes of Purdue University Northwest.  

“The COVID Stressor Scale looks at or assesses the extent to which various potential impacts of the pandemic are distressing,” explained Tambling.  

In this study, Tambling and the other researchers tried to quantify what causes people stress in the pandemic. They settled on a set of 23 factors that could be measured as causes of stress, ranging from fear about getting the infection to worries about job loss.  

Of those stressors, the researchers found that uncertainty about how long quarantine and/or social distancing requirements will last was the most likely the cause of pandemic stress. Fear of becoming infected and cancellation of planned or scheduled celebrations, entertainment, vacations or trips were also common causes of stress.  

For Tambling, part of this research surrounding the pandemic is assessing where the nation is with mental health literacy.  

“Mental health literacy is the concept of, ‘I can identify symptoms of various mental health concerns and know how to seek appropriate treatment and know who to ask,’” Tambling said. “My personal agenda is I really want to increase our mental health literacy.” 

The structural issues with mental health in this country run deeper than we think, explained Tambling.  

“We didn’t get here just because of the pandemic. We don’t do a good job with mental health in this country, at every level. And we’re paying the price for that now.” 

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