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Gender Differences in the Mental Health Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic

January 17, 2021
Veronica Guadagni
Veronica Guadagni, PhD

A study recently published in Frontiers in Global Women’s Health found that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected women differently than it has affected men: women reported more sleep troubles, more symptoms of anxiety and depression, and greater empathy for others. Here, first author Veronica Guadagni, PhD, explains what drove her to conduct the research, significant and surprising findings, and follow-up studies being conducted.

Q: What led you and your colleagues to look into gender differences in the effects of COVID-19?

A: The idea to conduct the study starts with a personal story. I am originally from Italy and mother of a 7-year-old in grade 2. In early March, I was aware of the coronavirus situation in Italy and very worried about the health of my family members who live in Italy and work in the health care field. At the same time, when the province where I live (Alberta, Canada) declared a state of local emergency on March 16  and a full lockdown, I found myself working from home with a full-time job and homeschooling my daughter on my own (my partner works out-of-province). I felt very overwhelmed and started to think about how in many families, the caregiving load is often greater for women. I started to think that in this case the situation I was living was shared by many women all over the world and that research looking at how gender roles impact the reactions to the pandemic was needed.

Q: Please briefly describe the study method and your most significant finding(s).

A: We created an online survey with a completion time of approximately 30 minutes. After consenting to partake in the study, participants filled out a demographic questionnaire in which they responded about their age, years of education, ethnicity, history of psychiatric/neurologic disease, and medications. They also reported about their biological sex (ie, male/female), gender identity (ie, woman, man, nonbinary), and sexual identity (ie, gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual, etc.). They then completed 6 questionnaires assessing quality of sleep, symptoms of insomnia, depression, anxiety, trauma, and empathy for others. Data were collected between March 23 and June 7, 2020 on a sample of volunteers in the Canadian population. We analyzed complete data for 573 participants.

We found that as compared to men, women reported lower quality of sleep and greater symptoms of insomnia, anxiety, depression, and trauma. However, women reported greater empathy for others. Sleep and mood disturbances increased over the course of the isolation period (worse with more days spent in lockdown) for both men and women. The most significant predictors of poor quality of sleep and insomnia were depression, anxiety, and trauma scores, especially in women; higher empathy trait was associated with higher depression, anxiety, and trauma scores, indicating that people who were more anxious about the pandemic also reported being more empathetic towards others.

Q: Were any of the outcomes different from what you expected?

A: In our previous research, we found a tight link between quality of sleep and empathy, with individuals with poor sleep quality reporting blunted empathic responses for others experiencing negative situations. In this case, we were expecting to find a similar association. However, the data collected during the lockdown showed that mental health disturbances were the most important factors that contributed to worsening of sleep quality, perhaps indicating that worrying for others was secondary as compared to personal distress in response to the pandemic.

Q: The data used in the study were collected between March and June of 2020. What would you expect to find if the same survey was conducted today, months later into the pandemic?

A: The survey is still open online and we are planning to analyze the new data and compare them with the ones that we obtained following the first wave. We now know more about the virus and I assume this plays a role in how individuals react to the pandemic. Moreover, there are many controversial topics flooding the news and social media, and false news and misinformation are quickly spreading. This generates overwhelming feelings and mistrust for the governments or even science in many people. All of this will affect individuals’ mental well-being. On the flip side of the coin, however, the vaccine is being administered worldwide and this gives people hope and a light at the end of the tunnel. It will be very interesting to see what the data show about reactions to the different waves.

Q: How can mental health clinicians use what you have learned to improve treatment of their patients?

A: Identifying specific sex and gender differences is fundamental to inform targeted psychological interventions. Clinicians, but also employers and organizations, in the future should be aware of how gender role impacts the load that individuals carry in their families and in society in general, and should consider how the mental health status of these individuals can be differently affected.

Q: Are you conducting any more research in this area, and are there any related studies you feel are needed?

A: As I said before, we are still collecting data to compare results obtained after the first wave to data collected during the second wave and beyond. Furthermore, it would be very interesting to design a study to directly assess the link between individuals’ levels of empathy for others and their compliance to public health rules. In the present study we were only able to speculate that perhaps individuals who care more about others would also be more compliant.

Reference

Guadagni V, Umilta A, and Iaria G. Sleep quality, empathy, and mood during the isolation period of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Canadian population: females and women suffered the most. Frontiers in Global Women’s Health. 2020;1:585938.


Veronica Guadagni, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Cumming School of Medicine, and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She holds a PhD in cognitive neurosciences from the University of Calgary and a MSc in neuroscience and BSc in psychobiology from the University of L’Aquila in Italy. The central theme of her research is how sleep, sleep deprivation, and sleep disturbances affect cognitive functioning and brain structure and function. She is currently investigating how a 6-month aerobic exercise program can improve older adults’ cognitive ability and brain health, and the role of sleep quality as a mediator in this relationship. Her other research interests include neurodegenerative diseases, particularly Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, sleep disorders, and, more recently, evaluation of sleep in the intensive care unit.

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