We’re exploring the impact of the pandemic on mental health, and today announced the results of our first user survey on the topic. Study volunteers confirmed that many are feeling more anxious and down, now more than ever. But the data also show something amazing: our users are finding silver linings in the midst of incredible turmoil. In fact, many say the pandemic has helped them identify personal strengths, increased their appreciation of life and strengthened their interpersonal relationships and spiritual connections.
Athena Robinson, Ph.D., Woebot Health’s Chief Clinical Officer and Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor at Stanford University, talks about the survey results, and offers tips for people who are feeling especially anxious or down. And for an even more personal perspective, check out Masha’s story. She’s a sci fi writer and Woebot user whose anxiety levels jumped as the pandemic hit her hometown of Capetown, South Africa. But she’s finding new approaches for tough times, and that’s helping to change her thoughts, her actions, and her life.
Why did Woebot Health conduct this survey?
In March, we launched “Perspectives,” the first program of specially crafted coronavirus content to inspire hope, offer empathy, and encourage perspective taking. Then, in early June, we invited users to take part in an IRB-approved longitudinal series of surveys about their Covid-19 experiences. User responses gave insight into their lived experiences, and the data highlighted potential differential impact between groups like essential workers and younger users. The insights will shape future content, as we strive to continue to help people as well as contribute to the professional mental health community.
What did you learn?
Almost three quarters (71 percent) of the 2,108 respondents said that changes in their way of life given the pandemic have been moderately, very, or extremely stressful, while more than half (58 percent) said they are bothered by being nervous, anxious or on edge more than half the days or nearly every day. About 42 percent say their mental health has worsened ‘very much’ or ‘extremely’ as a result of the pandemic. We also found that essential workers and older age groups report faring better than non-essential workers, and the youngest respondents (17-25 years old) report the highest levels of anxiety and low mood. Despite this, a large portion of users also indicate that the pandemic has helped them identify personal strengths (73 percent), increased their appreciation of life (80 percent) and strengthened their interpersonal relationships (70 percent) or spiritual connections (59 percent), whatever spiritual connection means for the individual.
What surprised you most about these survey results?
Humans are indeed extraordinary. It’s humbling and inspiring that even during this most challenging and unprecedented time, so many users say the pandemic has helped them find positive outcomes. I’m struck by the human capacity to navigate through and find meaning in persistently difficult times. In a world in which we’re hit each day with such bad news about Covid-19—its transmission, its growing numbers, its mutations—it’s just beautiful to see that we can admit pain, but also simultaneously find and even cultivate hope. I think that is a really special attribute of who we humans are.
As a clinician, would you say that’s one of the important concepts for mental health, to try to see beyond the negative?
In psychology, we have a concept called “wise mind.” Wise mind represents the intersection between two different states of mind. The first one is the emotional mind. And that is just what it sounds like: it’s driven by emotions, a lot of passion, a lot of intensity. But the other state of mind, the reasonable mind, is driven by facts and logic. The wise mind is created when these two minds intersect and overlap. It’s a place where we can acknowledge some of the realities of the situation (and there are plenty of realities to acknowledge these days) and also our feelings about it. There’s real strength in being able to talk about both sides. It’s not about just painting some rosy picture. That’s not real, but to ignore the positive wouldn’t be real, either. We need a balanced, wise-minded, perspective.
Why do you think essential workers may be faring better than the general respondent group in terms of overall mood and anxiety?
We certainly have more research to do to better understand the holistic experience of essential workers. A preliminary hypothesis is that it may have to do with engaging in work that others in one’s community need and depend upon. Essential workers are those people who are not just helping others, but creating some sense of normalcy for us all.
Was it surprising to you that the younger respondents seem to be doing worse than anyone?
Yes, initially, but then I got to thinking that the people more likely to be retired may potentially find it easier, relatively speaking compared to the younger group, to stay at home. Indeed, the youngest among us have had their life experiences totally disrupted. Think about high school graduation, getting into college, graduating college or trying to find your first job. All these beautiful life transitions that many of us go through from ages 17-25 have been so completely disrupted by Covid-19. The difference that we see here between our older and younger respondents may therefore be attributable to the fact that the life activities expected for each age group are different. If you’re older, and perhaps retired, you may be able to stay at home without the risk of losing out on some key life transitional experiences.
What you would recommend to those who are facing a lot of anxiety and low mood?
Very broadly speaking, continuing the conversation about how Covid-19 is impacting mental health is key. Being open about what we are feeling, and creating an atmosphere of supportive conversations around mental health and mental illness, is vital. It would be great if we can continue to decrease the stigma and create a safe environment where people can disclose their thoughts and feelings, and be open to treatment, whether that’s something as formal as seeing a psychiatrist or a psychologist or something as self-driven as finding an app-delivered program. The most important part is that we seek and are able to access the mental health care treatment we need.