Media & Mental Health: How COVID-19 News Consumption Worsens Wellness

September 18, 2020

Do the norms of media coverage of SARS-CoV-2 worsen rising acute stress and depressive symptoms in the United States?

Do the norms of media coverage of SARS-CoV-2 worsen rising acute stress and depressive symptoms in the United States?

Along with other pandemic-relevant stressors like unemployment, a new University of California Irvine (UCI) study says “yes.”

The study, published by investigators in Science Advances, highlights that the pandemic is not hitting everyone equally.

The investigators conducted a national survey of over 6,500 US residents in March-April 2020, during the peak of pandemic anxieties.

People surveyed later in the study period reported the highest rate of acute stress and depressive symptoms, according to investigators.

"People have lost wages, jobs and loved ones with record speed. Individuals living with chronic mental and physical illness are struggling; young people are struggling; poor communities are struggling. Mental health services need to be tailored to those most in need right now,” lead author E. Alison Holman, a UCI professor of nursing, said in a press release.

These factors are critical in determining who needs care; it is likely essential workers have been impacted most by the pandemic.

The research also highlights connections between mental health and viewing media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting the drum beat of anxiety on television, computer and smartphone can be negative for psychological well-being.

"…too much exposure can be overwhelming and lead to more stress, worry and perceived risks,” study author Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, said.

Key conclusions include that:

  • People with prior mental and physical conditions are more likely to show acute stress and depressive symptoms.
  • Secondary stressors - job and wage loss, a shortage of necessities - are strong predictors in the development of mental health symptoms.
  • Prolonged exposure to pandemic news and conflicting information are among the strongest predictors of pandemic-specific acute stress.