Ferkauf Professors and Students Co-Author a Study on Psychological Distress During COVID-19

Drs. Tracy A. Prout, Katie Aafjes-van Doorn and Vera Békés of the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, working with Ferkauf students Kathryn Whistler, Thomas Kui and Isabelle Christman-Cohen (as well as collaborators from the University of Pisa, Italy, and the University of Haifa, Israel), recently published “Identifying Predictors of Psychological Distress During COVID-19: A Machine Learning Approach” in Frontiers in Psychology.

Vera Bekes, Tracy Proud, Katie van Doorn

Here is the abstract of the paper:

Scientific understanding about the psychological impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic is in its nascent stage. Prior research suggests that demographic factors, such as gender and age, are associated with greater distress during a global health crisis. Less is known about how emotion regulation impacts levels of distress during a pandemic. The present study aimed to identify predictors of psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants (N = 2,787) provided demographics, history of adverse childhood experiences, current coping strategies (use of implicit and explicit emotion regulation), and current psychological distress. The overall prevalence of clinical levels of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress was higher than the prevalence outside a pandemic and was higher than rates reported among healthcare workers and survivors of severe acute respiratory syndrome. Younger participants (<45 years), women, and non-binary individuals reported higher prevalence of symptoms across all measures of distress. A random forest machine learning algorithm was used to identify the strongest predictors of distress. Regression trees were developed to identify individuals at greater risk for anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. Somatization and less reliance on adaptive defense mechanisms were associated with greater distress. These findings highlight the importance of assessing individuals’ physical experiences of psychological distress and emotion regulation strategies to help mental health providers tailor assessments and treatment during a global health crisis.

As Dr. Prout noted about the implications of their conclusions, “It is likely that the virus and its consequences will impact the global population for some time to come, and our findings demonstrate that health care providers may need to be vigilant, when assessing patients who present for care, about the difficulties they may be experiencing in defending against distress, whether for COVID-related symptoms or unrelated difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Békés observed that “the findings in the current study dovetail with other COVID-19 research on psychological distress amidst the pandemic and highlight not only the public mental health crisis that is unfolding but also the increased demand for mental health services in the coming years.” Dr. Aafjes-van Doorn added that “primary care and mental healthcare providers must be equipped to respond to this dire need,” citing how “the increase in telepsychotherapy may afford patients greater access to high-quality mental healthcare that can improve mental health outcomes and support resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“This outstanding work done by the faculty and students of the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology,” said Dr. Leslie Halpern, dean of Ferkauf, “demonstrates the important role that the school has to play in improving therapeutic practices to address the stress and trauma caused both by the pandemic itself and our psychological responses to the efforts to combat it.”