A new method confirms the impact of COVID-19 confinement measures on mental health and well-being

By August 24, 2020January 4th, 2021IBEC

Researchers from the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), a BIST centre, have developed a new method for evaluating the mental health and wellbeing of people living under strict confinement measures such those during the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020. The study, conducted with people living in 17 countries, confirms that confinement measures negatively impact emotional wellbeing. Researchers also describe personal situations that carry a higher risk for negative impacts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought physical distancing, stay-at-home rules, and even obligatory confinement in many countries. These measures can affect people’s mental and physical health in the short and long term and should be monitored with evidence-based tools. Personalised treatments should also be implemented to avoid aggravating symptoms.

A new study carried out by researchers in the SPECS lab at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), a BIST centre, shows that COVID-19 related confinement has an overall negative impact on wellbeing, which correlates with a dislike for working from home, a longing for the quality of pre-pandemic life, and living alone. These results were obtained with an innovative set of online tools that are of great use for the emerging field of lifestyle medicine and for the monitoring of a population’s wellbeing. The work is published in the prestigious journal PLoS One

Confinement has a negative impact on emotional wellbeing

IBEC researchers Héctor López Carral, Dr. Klaudia Grechuta, and ICREA Research Professor Paul Verschure asked participants to rate, using an online tool, the emotional content of a series of images in terms of their negativity or positivity as well as the intensity of the emotion they evoked. The ratings constituted an implicit evaluation of mental state, building on earlier validation studies that were conducted in a “non-confinement” situation. Participants also answered questions specifically designed to evaluate their living situation and overall experience during confinement. This determined if the mean ratings were related to whether subjects enjoyed working from home, were missing the “normal” pre-confinement life, or were living alone.

Results confirm that the confinement measures employed to slow down the propagation of the COVID-19 pandemic have a negative impact on the emotional wellbeing of the general population. The study revealed that participants undergoing the confinement rated the images significantly more negatively than subjects who evaluated the same stimuli under “normal” circumstances before the COVID-19 crisis (see Kurdi et al., 2017). Additionally, participants that did not enjoy working at home, highly missed the “normal” pre-confinement life, and lived alone rated the images more negatively than the others.

Our study confirms the negative impact of the confinement on the emotional health and wellbeing and proposes a new method to monitor, prevent and suggest interventions to mitigate the adverse impact of restrictions.” Says Héctor López, first co-author of the work.

A new method to measure emotional wellbeing under confinement

The experiment was performed between April 9th to 20th, 2020, with 112 subjects (64.29 % females). The international sample was composed of people with 19 different nationalities living in 17 European countries (53,57% in Spain). During the study, participants were asked to rate the emotional content of a series of 30 images in terms of the negativity or positivity of their content, as well as the intensity (arousal). After this, the participants answered questions to assess their personal living situation during the confinement. Results were compared to “normal” circumstances before the COVID-19 crisis (see Kurdi et al., 2017). Moreover, the authors applied machine learning techniques to assess the plausibility of automatic identification of participants who might be more at risk of developing mood disorders. The method used by the IBEC researchers accounted for the limitations of explicit screening methods, such as traditional scales, which have been widely criticised for assessment biases and limited accessibility. This online system, which relies on affective image ratings, has proven to be effective in measuring the emotional state of the general population. Therefore, it could be adapted for its use in a broader population.

Currently, the authors are working on a system that will be able to provide continuous monitoring of emotional health using smartphone apps. This would enable an at-home remote diagnostics system at a low cost, allowing clinicians to diagnose, monitor, and treat individuals who present emotional alterations. The implementation of such a system could be the key to preserving the mental wellbeing of a significant part of the population undergoing current and future confinements, with the potential of saving lives.

More information can be found on the IBEC website