Abstract: Mental Health Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Risk and Protective Factors within a University Sample (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Mental Health Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Risk and Protective Factors within a University Sample

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Independence BR G, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
James Topitzes, PhD, Professor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI
Michael Levandoski, BA, Student, Helen Bader School of Social Welfare, Milwaukee, WI
Adam Jussel, JD, Dean of Students, Helen Bader School of Social Welfare, Milwaukee, WI
Background and Purpose:

The COVID-19 public health crisis has potentially precipitated a concurrent mental health crisis.

Recently collected data confirm the suspicion that domestic mental health has suffered during the pandemic. For instance, hospital emergency room visits in the U.S., due to mental and behavioral health problems such as suicide attempts and drug overdoses, increased significantly after the pandemic began. Moreover, indicators suggest that the mental health of socially and economically vulnerable groups has suffered disproportionally over this time. As the current crisis evolves, research into the risk and protective factors of pandemic-related mental health can help inform public messaging and social programs. The current study investigates the following salient questions among a public university employee sample (N=629):

  1. What factors predict poor self-reported mental health?
  2. What factors appear to confer protection against poor self-reported mental health?


University personnel completed a cross-sectional survey about one year after the pandemic began. The survey included one self-report question about harmful mental health effects of the pandemic along with all five items of the Primary Care Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PC-PTSD) screener. The PC-PTSD preamble instructed respondents only to consider the pandemic as a potential trauma. The authors dichotomized both measures and modeled them as study outcomes, i.e., harmed mental health and positive PTSD screen. Predictors included stressful pandemic experiences, e.g., financial insecurity, and coping strategies used, e.g., exercise. Covariates were age, race, gender, educational attainment and a lifetime trauma index (derived from the Brief Trauma Questionnaire). To answer the research questions, the authors ran multivariate logistic regressions in the SPSS 27.0 processor.


The average age of the sample was 45 years; 85% were white; 73% were women with 1% identifying as other or non-binary; and over 90% were college graduates. Out of eight types of potential lifetime traumas, the mean number of exposures was 1.8. Nearly one-fourth reported that the pandemic was very or extremely harmful to one’s mental health, and 38% screened positive for pandemic-related PTSD.

Predictors of poor self-reported mental health or positive PTSD screen included being young, caregiving, experiencing social isolation, and experiencing uncertainty. Additionally, concerns about political and civic strife along with the death or illness of a loved one due to COVID-19 also predicted a positive PTSD screen. Coping skills that appeared to protect against study outcomes included spending time outside or with pets, being with family or friends, and formal work.

Conclusions and Implications:

Even among a relatively advantaged sample of university employees, COVID-19 appears to have affected the mental health of a significant minority. Youth appear to be vulnerable to these effects, as do caregivers and those who are socially isolated. Nonetheless, public health messages can tout the mental health benefits of potential protective factors, including physical and/or outdoor activity, social connection (physical distancing perhaps but not social disconnection), and meaningful work. Policies that keep or put to people to work during this time will also likely support collective mental health. Researchers must apply the questions from this study to vulnerable communities.