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Expert Insight

Q&A: Data on Mental Health Effects and How Data Affects Mental Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the importance of mental health. Now that we have data on the pandemic’s psychological effects, action is required – including examining how the massive consumption of infectious disease data has exacerbated anxiety, depression, and stress.

Joshua E. Porterfield, PhD
April 6, 2022

One of the greatest challenges with data is quantifying what you cannot see, as we have discussed previously with personal behavior and decision-making. Mental health has been a nebulous and even taboo topic in the United States for too long. One positive aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has expanded and elevated the conversation about mental health into everyday life.

Dr. Tamar Rodney, an assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, has worked to identify and quantify the impact of this pandemic on the mental health of frontline workers, patients, and the rest of us who endured much of the past two years in isolation. As both a provider and consumer of data, Dr. Rodney has a unique perspective on collecting data on mental health as well as the impact that daily data consumption is having on our mental health. It’s okay to not be okay, but how do we put a number on it and make it actionable?

How do you collect data on mental health during a pandemic?

I try to connect with people one-on-one, which was disrupted heavily during the pandemic. I had to collect some of my data through surveys — although that’s not an ideal format — but it was important to keep collecting data. Early on we were keenly aware that there were going to be many mental health complications from the pandemic, and we didn't want to miss the opportunity by pursuing perfect data collection or not being able to meet with people face-to-face. We had to be creative and practical to continue data collection on mental health. Throughout the pandemic we've been forced to adapt in every realm from schools to clinics. It felt like a natural progression that research and data collection had to follow suit, so we met with patients and collected data over Zoom or the telephone whenever possible.

What has been the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of frontline workers?

This was my passion early on in the pandemic because I am a nurse and I work with nursing students. One of the surveys I initiated early on focused on asking: What worries you the most about being a frontline worker? The danger they put their families in was their biggest concern, not their own personal safety while performing their duties. The other survey asked: How long can I do this and do I need a different role? The more COVID-19 patients we had, the more staff who had to attend to them from other units. It meant changing roles, and there was this worry about whether people were prepared to go to the intensive care unit when they weren’t originally trained for it. I collected data on those very personal fears, which people were comfortable revealing in a safer setting, when they wouldn't necessarily share that with their peers due to the fear of judgment. Putting that in a qualitative sense is one of the things I emphasized because I wanted to maintain the authenticity of the voices of those individuals.

How should leadership act on mental health data?

When we explain what's happening on the ground, it's an opportunity to make things better. Leadership should recognize that it’s a good sign that their staff is willing to share their difficulties and identify what they need from leadership to fix it. The first piece is listening to staff to learn about their fears and how they’re experiencing the crisis. When an employee feels like they're being heard, it alleviates some of their fear. It also gives leadership time to design and invest in long-term solutions before the problem becomes untenable.

‘If staff tell you how they’re feeling, they’re not blaming you. They’re providing a chance to make the environment better.’

We're not usually looking for a quick fix. We’re identifying the problems so that leadership can take time to address the situation. Usually leaders are not receptive to this type of data on staff fears and experiences. Instead of questions about how to address concerns, I hear critiques of the studies’ sample size as people imply that these mental health concerns are not true of most workers. The message is lost then. If 10 individuals are afraid or overburdened, that’s 10 individuals who should not be experiencing that regardless of the rest of the population. You can’t rely solely on statistics to determine if staff concerns are actionable. These data identify opportunities for leadership to help, and they should be grateful for it.

How does data generally affect people during a crisis?

In the beginning there was a craving for data because it was protective. People used data to make decisions. It was necessary because it helped people plan their next steps as things changed and we learned more. Sometimes we look at data as overwhelming, but it also saves lives. We have to be careful about how much we distance ourselves from data because, particularly during disasters, we depend on the best data to help us to make the best decisions at that time.

‘How long a person consumes data, how they receive it, and where they receive it changes the way data affects mental health.’

The forum and format in which we receive data are most important for how data affects us emotionally. If it's presented with hype and fear mongering, that produces anxiety as opposed to data designed for practical use, which has been responsibly sourced and vetted. If I get my data from a reputable source that I trust, it relieves my fear since I am now empowered to make decisions for myself, my family, and those around me as opposed to spending time questioning the validity of the data and delaying decision making, which could be detrimental.

How can we improve data communication to reduce the associated stress, anxiety, and fear?

We write academic papers and that's also the style in which we present data. How many people who need that information actually read that article? If someone needs that information right now, how quickly can they digest the entire journal article to make sense of it without somebody with technical knowledge helping? Not being able to access and understand data important to you is incredibly stressful. Graphics, diagrams, and charts really help, but the audience also matters immensely. Make it applicable to them. Be creative. Be mindful of who you're speaking with. Simple, understandable data is useful data. Complex data is meaningless regardless of how rigorous your study design and data collection methods were. If the person you're trying to communicate with does not understand, then that data could even add to stress and anxiety.

Joshua E. Porterfield, PhD

Dr. Joshua E. Porterfield, Pandemic Data Initiative content lead, is a writer with the Centers for Civic Impact. He is using his PhD in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering to give an informed perspective on public health data issues.