By Melanie Takefman
Dr. Bruria Adina, head of the Emergency and Disaster Management Program at TAU’s School of Public Health, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, and TAU’s Center for Combating Pandemics, has been measuring Israelis’ resilience for years, both during “routine times” and crises. When COVID-19 broke in March 2020, Adini and her team surveyed a sample group of Israelis regarding their mental well-being. They continued to do so every 2-3 months to evaluate their levels of distress, depression and anxiety as well as individual, community and national resilience.
How has COVID-19 affected Israelis’ mental health?
It affected them in almost every facet of their lives. Until October 2020, the rates of distress rose significantly—both anxiety and depression. We got to the point where one in five people had high levels of depression, and one in three had high levels of anxiety.
All three levels of resilience—individual, community and national—dropped through much of the first year of COVID-19. Then, in January 2021, we saw a small increase in community and national resilience, most probably a result of the vaccination campaign.
We can explain this by the fact that the vaccination campaign offered hope that things will get better. People felt that the country was standing by their side. The authorities were doing something.
At the same time, there was a substantial decrease in individual resilience. People didn’t feel the vaccination campaign was impacting their lives yet. They were still stuck at home. They didn’t know what was going to happen with their children’s education. They were still experiencing economic instability.
How has resilience varied with age?
We expected to see the highest threat and the lowest resilience among the elderly population, because we heard that they were the most at risk and COVID-19 could be lethal for them. But what we found was the opposite.
It was the younger populations, aged 31-40, who showed the lowest level of resilience and the highest levels of stress, anxiety and perceived threat. The younger people felt the most impact economically because they are the backbone of the workforce, while those who live on pensions were less affected. This younger group also worried about the impact of the pandemic on their children, as the school system was closed.
In addition, we found that the resilience of university and college students was lower than that of the average population. Their distress and anxiety levels were higher, as was a perceived threat to their academic success. In addition, many of them lost jobs in the industries that were shut down during the pandemic, such as restaurants and bars.
How can governments help people be more resilient during a pandemic?
Transparency is key to the management of any emergency. Having a clear and unified message is also important. If you enable open dialogue, authorities can provide information that the public needs in a way that builds trust. In other words, the government needs to make the public part of the solution, to make them a partner and to empower them. For example, the government and other bodies can invite the public to relay what is happening on the ground. In this way, citizens can have an impact on policy and crisis response.
On the flipside, we saw that messaging that inspired fear among the populace worked only for a short time. Also, the threat of cash fines didn’t convince people to follow the guidelines, such as wearing masks. What does have an impact is helping people understand how their behavior will impact those they care about—their community, family members and so on.
During the pandemic, we also saw fruitful connections between academia and decision-makers. We provided data and evidence of what the public feels, which they could take into consideration in determining policy. We collaborated with the Ministries of Health, Social Equality and Welfare.
Some people think that the next pandemic will be a mental health pandemic. Do you agree with this statement?
If you’re asking me is this pandemic going to have long-term mental health repercussions, the answer is certainly yes.
No type of adversity or pandemic is singular. The health risk caused economic instability. The economic instability created political instability. Mental health impacts your ability to function, your ability to function impacts your economic situation, your economic situation impacts your mental health, your self-confidence, your certainty of what the future holds, and so on. So it’s not only about mental health; it affects our economy and society as well.
What are the main lessons that COVID-19 has taught us?
Even when we need to make drastic changes in our lives, we have the power to overcome and continue to function. For example, the education system closed and distance learning was a severe blow but in academia, for example, we didn’t miss one day of teaching. We switched to Zoom, and that’s going to impact online learning in the years to come. We saw the same concerning the economy. People worked from home.
I think the pandemic led to some positive insights, and these are becoming clearer as time passes. We’re going to see that our society can make the necessary modifications to improve our way of life.
That’s the exact definition of resilience: To adapt to what is happening and still try to bounce forward.
Featured image: Dr. Bruria Adina, head of TAU’s Emergency and Disaster Management Program