Challenges Related to Mental Health Disclosures that Social Science Researchers Face During the Pandemic

Introduction

The Covid-19 pandemic is impacting the psychological well-being, as well as the economic, health and social lives, of millions of people, young and old, across the globe. Social science researchers are keen to understand the stress and anxiety people are suffering [and how they are coping]. However, it is exceedingly difficult to conduct field work in the current circumstances when safeguarding both research study respondents and researchers is paramount. Ethical questions are being raised as research studies turn to technology to reach respondents via phone and online as a result of the widespread lockdown to curb infection prohibiting face-to-face interviews.   

In this blog, I reflect on key considerations for safeguarding mental health when using remote methods to conduct social research during the pandemic. Examples refer to the recent Listening to Young Lives COVID-19 phone survey in India. Two separate rounds of calls have been conducted in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh since May 2020 reaching out to approximately 2,800 young people on each occasion.

Don’t make a bad situation worse

The first question a researcher should ask is whether the research should take place at all. Many researchers have stopped or postponed their investigations due to the current situation. Even those using remote technologies are concerned about further burdening people who may be negatively impacted by the pandemic.  Limited access to mental health services to which respondents can be referred, in case they need support, is a key consideration at this time, particularly in low-and middle-income countries where such services are frequently lacking.

The core ethics principles of beneficence (do good), non-maleficence (do no harm) and respect (individuals autonomy given due attention) while considering the feasibility of research, planning research methodology and developing and administering questionnaires remain ever important during the pandemic.

Adapting to Respondents’ Diverse Needs

If research does go ahead, it is important to consider how to seek informed consent under the current constraints. As the Young Lives’ phone survey was conducted with Index children (now young adults), who have already participated in five previous survey rounds, there was an established relationship between the field investigator and the young respondent and his or her family. This familiarity helped a great deal. For example, in India, the field supervisors who have been associated with the longitudinal study since 2002, conducted  the introductory calls as a first step in the consent process, explaining the purpose of the phone survey and reiterating to respondents that they are free to participate or not, and to stop the call at any time and for any reason.

Researchers must also seek to understand and pay attention to the circumstances in which the study is taking place. For instance, respondents are likely be affected by disruption to their livelihoods, closure of educational institutions or the burden of caring for family members. This is particularly true for young girls and women.  For example, in the Young Lives phone survey conducted in India, women often had to step away from the phone survey to attend to children or household chores and/or had to stop the interview mid-way.

Differing access to digital technology in households was a further concern, since young women had in many cases to speak on phones belonging to male family members raising issues of privacy. To ensure we respected survey respondents’ time, we made efforts to ensure that a suitable interview time was agreed upon prior to the call, that there was flexibility to accommodate the personal needs of each respondent and we kept the length of the phone call to no more than 30 minutes.

The second part of the survey, which was estimated to take around 50 minutes to administer, was purposefully split into a minimum of two calls, with young women preferring three calls to work around their schedules. We found this approach reassured respondents, particularly those with urgent household responsibilities, that they would be able to participate. The fact that there is often no more than one telephone shared by the household also made it impossible for young people to speak for more than 30 minutes at a stretch – a reality that researchers need to be aware of when planning phone surveys. Keeping calls short, helped the younger cohort, often borrowing the phone from parents or other household members, to participate.

Building Capacities of Researchers

It is important to highlight that even in research whose primary focus is not mental health, it is likely that respondents may reveal distress and anxiety at this time. Signals may go unnoticed by researchers conducting interviews by phone if they have not been trained to pick up on them, especially if the study is exploring issues other than mental well-being.

Findings from the first call of Young Lives’ phone survey revealed that 89 per cent of the respondents in India expressed anxiety and were nervous about the current pandemic. These respondents were asked the degree to which they “feel nervous about the current circumstances”. When we adopt remote methods of field work a further challenge for field investigators is to be able to debrief at the end of a phone interview when a respondent communicates high levels of anxiety.

Researchers may pick up a lot of unspoken cues during a face – to face interview; without this opportunity, researchers cannot readily identify respondents who may be in vulnerable circumstances. In longitudinal research, where the same questions are repeated across survey rounds, careful review of research protocols is necessary, since regular lines of enquiry that might at one time have seemed quite innocuous (eg about household wealth and livelihoods) may now cause distress to the respondents.

It is critical that all researchers conducting studies during the pandemic are trained to recognise and refer respondents who are ‘at risk’ to resources in the communities where the remote field work is being conducted. It is equally important that time is spent identifying these resources.  Young Lives has developed a consultation guide to be shared with respondents which includes the contact details of important organisations and helplines for referrals or in case of any emergency. This guide is being mailed or shared over WhatsApp with respondents as part of the second interview and will be available from the project website.

Well-Being of Researchers

It is also important that we pay attention to the mental health of the researchers themselves who may experience immense anxiety, particularly when the distance between professional and personal spaces has been blurred. Many researchers do not have a separate workspace within their homes and are juggling household responsibilities with the demands of work. Personal health or economic concerns triggered by the pandemic may be also adding to their stress levels. Research agencies and organisations need to develop safeguarding procedures for research teams, alongside their protocols to safeguard respondents. They should also ensure colleagues are provided the space to share their experiences and are provided any necessary support.

Conclusion

There is still a lot we need to learn about COVID-19 including how best to carry out ethical research during these difficult times. Listening to research partners in the global South who are aware of how the pandemic is affecting communities, is one way that collaborative research studies can ensure that methods adopted and questions posed do not lead to increased stress of respondents during these insecure times. Ongoing dialogue with other research groups conducting similar research in low- and middle-income country contexts has also been helpful. Moreover, we can draw upon the experience of research colleagues who have worked in conflict situations, since this pandemic poses similar challenges to those they would have encountered while navigating their research.

Headline findings from Call 2 of the Young Lives at Work Phone Survey will be published in November. Through the ESRC-funded 'Methodological Learning and Lessons from Young Lives' project, we are documenting ethical and methodological challenges encountered throughout the Young Lives study, including during the current pandemic.