Dr. Victor Puac-Polanco: Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health in the US and Guatemala

Dr. Victor Puac-Polanco, Global Mental Health Scholar at Columbia University and Dean’s Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard Medical School, recently conducted a review with colleagues to estimate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the US adult population. Dr. Puac-Polanco and the research team found that caution was needed in interpreting the results of previously-published studies – a true comparison with pre-pandemic baseline levels was difficult to make because various factors (response rates, survey distribution methods, self-selection bias) could skew the survey responses received. Thus, Dr. Puac-Polanco and the team conducted their own analysis using a set of publicly-available data from national reports that were reliable and could more accurately capture changes in prevalence rates of mental health in the US.

Through their own analyses, the team found that point prevalence of anxiety and depression symptoms and substance use has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic in the US adult population, but not as drastically high as previous studies and social media outlets have reported. They also found that specific demographic groups continue to be systemically and disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. This research is crucial in helping to gain a more nuanced understanding of the mental health impacts of the pandemic. For more information, this article has been accepted for publication in the journal Psychiatric Clinics of North America and a pre-proof version is available online here.

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Dr. Puac-Polanco has also been leading a second project that is assessing the mental health of healthcare professionals in Guatemala. This study is in collaboration with other Columbia Global Mental Health Programs faculty and researchers as part of a larger study (HEROES) to conduct country-to-country comparisons on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare workers in Latin America. Thus far, Dr. Puac-Polanco has found that certain demographic and workplace factors, such as younger age, higher education, prior mental health history, role in healthcare setting, COVID-19 exposure and infection concerns, and insufficient PPE, are associated with increased mental distress and depressive symptoms. Preliminary findings were presented at the XII International Public Health Congress in Colombia, and this study was recently accepted to be published in the American Journal of Public Health.

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Please join us in recognizing the valuable research that Dr. Victor Puac-Polanco has been leading throughout the pandemic. These forthcoming publications will illustrate the impact of the pandemic on mental health in the general US adult population and among health care workers in Guatemala and contribute to a body of work that can inform policy decisions in the future.