Tyrone Burke, July 13, 2020

Carleton University Rapid Response Grants: Mental Health, Wellness and Social Adaptation

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges and emphasized the urgency of grappling with social issues like inequality. The complexity of this crisis demands the mobilization of experts in many disciplines, and the academic community has answered the call. In April 2020, Carleton launched the Rapid Response Research Grants program to help build our understanding of COVID-19 and the ways in which the pandemic is impacting our lives. This funding initiative is providing $250,000 to 59 research projects being undertaken by researchers from all five of Carleton’s line faculties: Arts and Social Sciences, Engineering and Design, Public Affairs, Science, and the Sprott School of Business. This is the third of five stories covering these projects.

COVID-19 Research: Mental Health, Wellness and Social Adaptation

No matter how carefully considered your plans are, change can come at you pretty fast. Almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic radically disrupted our lives. Our daily routines changed, and in-person interactions came to abrupt halt. For many of us, it caused great anxiety and stress.

With all of this uncertainty, some would choose to turn to their therapist for support, but even that has changed. In keeping with physical distancing measures, therapists began conducting sessions with videoconferencing software like Zoom, but little is known about how effectively therapists can assess patients using only two-dimensional images. Dr. Kenta Asakura of the School of Social Work and Dr. Amedeo D’Angiulli of the Department of Neuroscience are teaming up with Spreedix, a local tech start-up, to use artificial intelligence algorithms and develop assistive technologies that could help therapists identify verbal and non-verbal cues, and assess varying levels and types of stress responses that patients display in these online meetings.

While some have found ways to maintain their healthy habits in trying times, many have struggled. Dr. Marina Milyavskaya and Dr. Rachel Burns of the Department of Psychology are conducting monthly surveys about people’s habits – both good and bad. They want to understand how the pandemic has affected habit formation, and what helps people be more effective in reducing unwanted behaviours.

For single people, physical distancing measures can be especially isolating. Those who live alone lost virtually all human contact when strict public health interventions were implemented. Everyone dealt with the shock of the situation a little differently – and some did better than others. Dr. Cheryl Harasymchuk and Dr. Nassim Tabri of the Department of Psychology are seeking to identify the psychological factors associated with resilience in the face of the pandemic. They’ll be exploring how social support strategies and individuals’ attachment styles affected the pandemic-related stress of single people, and contributed to consequences like binge eating, substance abuse, and gambling.

The pandemic has even prevented some forms of gambling. On March 15, all land-based casinos in Ontario were mandated to close. A report from the Responsible Gambling Council found that this resulted in an increase in depression, anxiety, and substance use among some gamblers – as well as an increase in online gambling. Dr. Michael Wohl of the Department of Psychology is conducting a secondary analysis of their data, and will collect a second wave of data to assess possible changes in co-morbid mental health problems since the first wave and whether problem gamblers are substituting their land-based gambling for other addictive behaviours during the pandemic. The ultimate goal is to build a fuller understanding of the impact of casino closures.

It isn’t only gamblers who reached for substances to help them cope. During the pandemic, some Canadians have been consuming more alcohol and cannabis products. Dr. Alfonso Abizaid and Dr. Kim Hellemans of the Department of Neuroscience are investigating how COVID-19 has affected cannabis use and stress among university students. This builds on research that they were conducting before the pandemic, and will seek to identify how posts on social media platforms can help predict vulnerability to loneliness, depression, and/or suicidal ideation. Their findings will inform a strategy to provide mental health supports on campus, and in the general population as the COVID-19 crisis continues.

For students with autism, the change might have been especially jarring. Many people with autism value their daily routines highly, and differences in learning and communication formats could prove particularly significant for them. Yet it’s also possible that online learning could actually be better for students with autism.  Dr. Natasha Artemeva and PhD student Jacquie Ballantine of the School of Linguistics and Language Studies are conducting interviews with autistic university students to develop knowledge of how the challenges that they’ve faced affect their responses to academic and social changes, and to identify strategies that could help universities retain these students in the current teaching environment.

Some Canadians had additional reasons to feel stress and anxiety. Well-known politicians chose to frame COVID-19 as a ‘Chinese virus,’ and hate crimes and discrimination against Canadians of Asian descent spiked after the pandemic struck. Dr. Dennis Kao of the School of Social Work is conducting an online survey of Ontarians of Asian descent to better understand the scope of anti-Asian discrimination during the pandemic, and how people are coping with this added challenge. Dr. Xiaobei Chen of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology is also examining this problem. She is researching how Canadians from mainland China are responding, and how they are pushing back. The goal is to help the community by contributing this knowledge to the public education programs offered by the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre.

For all  of the negative effects of the crisis, there are those who have seized the opportunity to offer help to their neighbours. The small town of Almonte, Ontario lost dozens of residents when COVID-19 swept through a nursing home there. Dr. Sophie Tamas of the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies has been providing research services to help community groups identify and respond to local needs.

In times of trouble, music can give us solace. But physical distancing has prevented us from gathering in the concert halls and places of worship that we have turned to in the past. Fortunately, the internet is able to help fill this void. Dr. Ellen Waterman and colleagues at the School for Studies in Art and Culture are working to create a resource hub for Carleton music students, so that they can continue to make music together online, and build the teamwork and responsive musical skills they will need as professional musicians. Also of the School for Studies in Art and Culture, Dr. Jesse Stewart has been adapting an online musical interface called We Are All Musicians (WAAM) WEB. It enables multiple people to control a mechanical percussion system remotely in real time, so that we can continue to make music together, even when we must be apart.

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