Survey: Many still find it hard to stay home during pandemic, worry about mental health during isolation

Most people are motivated to physically separate themselves from others to help stop the spread of coronavirus — according to more than 26,000 Wisconsin residents who responded to a survey in recent days — but obligations to work and family and mental health concerns make staying apart a challenge.

Results from the University of Wisconsin–Madison survey about social distancing and COVID-19, a disease caused by a novel coronavirus at the heart of a global pandemic, come from responses collected March 19 to March 22, 2020.

The researchers who designed and fielded the survey say its online distribution and (figurative) word-of-mouth marketing limited the sample to a group that is not representative of Wisconsin’s population. But the results are still useful, revealing, and in many cases, hopeful and uplifting. The work is guiding a new round of surveying aimed at testing specific messages designed to convince people of the importance of physical distancing, also referred to as social distancing, to manage the pandemic.

“The more people think that social distancing is effective, the more they do it. But even the people who told us they are not practicing distancing are convinced that it’s effective to keep the virus from spreading,” says Markus Brauer, a UW–Madison psychology professor and member of a large group of collaborators conducting the survey research. “So, if people aren’t distancing, it’s not because they think that the infection risk is low.”

That is, it’s not fear of being infected themselves that’s keeping people from social distancing. But a large majority of respondents who were not yet distancing much said they know at least one person who might suffer very serious consequences from COVID-19. Some people appear to be more vulnerable to the disease than others due to age and underlying health factors.

“They do think that caring for others is consistent with practicing social distancing,” Brauer says.

That helps researchers craft potential messages for public health agencies to send and possibly reach more people effectively.

“Some suggest that we have to tell people again and again that risk of infection is high or that there will be negative consequences if they get infected. That’s actually not the case for many people,” Brauer says. “Based on the results of our survey, appeals to people being valuable, moral human beings — altruistic, generous, caring — are likely to be more effective. If you consider yourself an altruistic, caring person, then what you do is you practice social distancing.”

But structural barriers — like the need to continue bringing in a paycheck, or the need to help families manage their lives — are keeping some survey respondents from following distancing guidelines. That’s consistent with other research on these issues, according to Dominique Brossard, a risk communication researcher and UW–Madison professor of life sciences communication.

“People want to do what’s right, but they’re constrained in some real way,” Brossard says. “Even if they know what they are supposed to be doing, sometimes it is just too difficult or not even possible to do so.”

Those who reported they are not fully complying with the recommended social distancing said they were unsure which behaviors are OK and which are not while social distancing, says Brauer, who summarized the results of the survey in a report. They also indicated a desire for more concrete instructions.

Some respondents said they do not yet practice social distancing because they are afraid they might not know how to keep busy or that their mental health issues might get worse.

“We have to help people address these worries with specific messaging,” Brauer says.

It may be helpful to shift the jargon used to describe distancing.

“We want physical distancing, not social distancing,” Brossard says. “We want people to stay connected to their social group, to talk over the phone and over Skype and through the window as much as they can. Their responses reflect the importance of keeping up those connections.”

Dozens of UW–Madison faculty, staff and students took up the survey project on March 17, which benefitted from the leadership of Jordan Schwakopf, a research specialist in Brauer’s lab. The survey went online March 18, and is still open here.

Brossard was struck by the size and speed of the initial survey response, gathered over the course of just a few days.

“It’s really encouraging to see that 26,000 people were willing to take a survey to try to make things better for their neighbors in Wisconsin,” she says. “Right now, a lot of people are gloomy and anxious. But this indicates that everyone wants to help. It’s reassuring to me that so many people are motivated by the common good.”

The research is a partnership between the League of Wisconsin Municipalities and UW–Madison departments and centers, including UniverCity Alliance, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Wisconsin School of Business, Global Health Institute, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, Mayors Innovation Project, Morgridge Center for Public Service, the schools of Nursing and Human Ecology and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

A report with the preliminary findings of the survey is available on Brauer’s website, which can be found here. Additional data analyses are being conducted, and the report will be updated as new results come in.

“Well over 40,000 people from Wisconsin and other states have now completed the survey,” Brauer says, as of March 24, 2020. “We’re getting numerous requests for the data from researchers and agencies around the country and from abroad. We’re hopeful we’ve got something here that can help in many places.”

Written by Chris Barncard | March 24, 2020