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Psychologists at Ulster University and the University of Sheffield have teamed up to launch a study of the mental health and social impacts of the COVID-19 epidemic to understand how they affect the mental health and behaviour of UK citizens.

A team of experts, led by Professor Richard Bentall at the University of Sheffield, are surveying 2,000 people in the UK now, and again in a month’s time, and hope that their findings will help inform the better management of future public health crises.

They aim to measure impacts of the epidemic on people’s mental health, their attitudes towards others and their political views, and understand how these change as the epidemic progresses through the population, and how these changes are related to appropriate changes in health-related behaviour.

They want to understand how these impacts are related to exposure to infected people and beliefs about the virus and the epidemic, and will also look at how these impacts are explained by psychological factors which may make some people cope better with the epidemic than others.

The representative group of UK residents will then be asked about COVID-19 health related behaviours such as social distancing, use of masks and handwashing, to measure the extent to which people are enacting these protective behaviours.

There has been very little research on the psychological impacts of viral epidemics – but the limited data that is available suggest that such epidemics may have severe social and psychological effects, and quarantining people may affect their mental health. Crucially, there is also evidence that how people react to an epidemic can affect the progression of the epidemic.

Dr Jilly Gibson-Miller, Lecturer in Health Psychology at the University of Sheffield, said:

"This is one of the first studies of the 'psychology of epidemics' during perhaps one of the biggest existential threats the world has faced this century.

“Our survey will allow us to begin to understand, in great depth, the psychological impact of this epidemic on our citizens and how this changes as the epidemic unfolds. We know what an important role human behaviour plays in the spread of an epidemic.

As a Health Psychologist, I'm particularly interested in the extent to which people are carrying out protective behaviours, such as hand-washing and social distancing, and whether they feel they have sufficient motivation, opportunity and capability to do so.”

Professor Jamie Murphy, Psychology Research Institute, Ulster University commented:

"The survey methodology we are employing will ensure a rapid response from this nationally representative UK sample. This in turn affords a valuable opportunity to analyse the data and disseminate these important findings as quickly as possible so that those working on the front line and those charged with instructing and directing the public may do so more effectively.  

“Moreover, our follow-up data in the UK will allow us to conduct analyses that will reveal important changes in knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours relating to the pandemic during a critical period of the anticipated contagion, while our expected data collection in other European countries will afford an opportunity for much needed international comparison analyses."

The team includes

at the University of Sheffield

  • Professor Richard Bentall
  • Dr Liat Levita
  • Dr Jilly Gibson-Miller
  • Dr Anton Martinez
  • Dr Todd Hartman
  • Dr Thomas Stocks

at Ulster University

  • Professor Mark Shevlin
  • Dr Orla McBride
  • Professor Jamie Murphy

at University College London

  • Dr Liam Mason