COVID-19 has been one of the defining issues for so many aspects of life including the work of psychologists over the last two years. A special issue of the European Psychologist journal contains some of the inspired work in this area from European psychology. Here, our guest editors Bernd Roehrle and Nicola Gale talk about the creation of the issue.
By June 2020 when the notion of this Special Issue was taking shape, it had become apparent that COVID-19 was not going to be a short-lived phenomenon. Knowledge and understanding from psychology were in demand, from governments and policymakers; those offering information, guidance and support including for example media, and third sector organizations; and from citizens themselves.
For Bernd, there was a particular curiosity to ask questions across the discipline about the extent to which psychological research has dealt with the COVID-19 specific phenomena as opposed to repurposing generic psychological knowledge or drawing on understanding based on earlier epidemics or other types of crisis and disaster. Simply drawing on the existing evidence base and generalizing it to the pandemic can mean that new, phenomenon-specific constructs are missing or missed. In some circumstances this could be seen as serving the causes of client, profession or interest group, and the limits of previous methods and theories on comparable phenomena in application to the current issue may also be missed. It would be important in this special issue to see if current criticisms of the science (such as small studies, lack of longitudinal studies, few controlled studies, specific populations not represented, and lack of flexibility to incorporate new methods) could be addressed. This would mean expanding existing theoretical constructs, and attempting to answer the question how such a new global threat situation interacts with those that are existing and more manageable and known. At this stage in the pandemic, it might be possible to answer the question why, despite previous experience with other epidemics and pandemics, the approaches for dealing with them which provide for a scientifically broad approach (also involving psychology), have not been sufficiently taken up by many governments. It was also a hope that this Special Issue could demonstrate that the physical sciences such as virology alone cannot provide all the answers and more emphasis should be placed on a broader social and psychological understanding.
For Nicola, within The European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations [EFPA], COVID-19 had become a top priority. EFPA, along with national and international psychologists’ organizations, was actively engaged in gathering together and sharing knowledge, and encouraging collaboration to develop the knowledge base further. It was evident COVID-19 would require considerable engagement at the psychological and social, as well as the medical and epidemiological levels. To make our contribution responsibly as European psychologists, this meant developing, reviewing, and evaluating the evidence base. EFPA was also keen to advance the quality and scientific integrity of the work that it helps disseminate across Europe, so doing something in the European Psychologist, with its reach, impact, and focus on review papers that distill and evaluate the evidence, was an ideal choice.
By the time of publication of the Special Issue, COVID-19 had indeed proved to be the defining problem of the times. It had had such an impact that the European Commission was committing €2.018 trillion, the largest stimulus package ever financed in Europe, to help rebuild a post-COVID-19 Europe.
When the special issue was started, it became clear it would be necessary to develop an approach in consultation with the senior and managing editors that allowed for the fact that COVID-19 psychology research was in the early stages. We received many empirical studies which were commendably fast in preparation and where possible we encouraged contextualization of the study by the authors in a review of the preceding evidence base. As the edition progressed, and time and therefore the body of research moved on, we received the systematic reviews and meta-analyses which are so important for a journal with this scope. In all, we received many times the usual number of submissions for this journal, indicative of the amount of work being done by the European psychology community.
We have set out in our editorial what our one ‘takeaway’ is from each paper that readers of this special issue might want to use in their work. At the social and community level, these include the importance of social connection and relationships while at the same time considering their ‘dark side’ potential to undermine health policy; the importance of public trust; and unequal impact of the crisis. The need for protective measures for mental wellbeing in identified risk groups is identified. The relevance of personality for fostering compliance with health measures, and managing aversive traits appropriately, is seen. Finally, the way the evidence base is used and developed in a new and changing crisis is explored.
We hope the papers will be used in the world beyond science, at the interface between the science and the social and political policy world in relation to understanding COVID-19, and providing an evidence base as a starting point in any future crisis of this kind.
In terms of how psychology continues to work, we hope the use of defined search criteria will become universal, that the shift towards using a conceptual broad defined and structured method such as PRISMA will be adopted more generally, and that all would demonstrate an analysis of the reliability of their selected results. The need to use but not be too tied to the knowledge base from previous disasters becomes evident.
It would be good to see papers coming from other specialisms within psychology. Educational disruption has been a major feature of COVID-19, and we had very much wanted to include a contribution from educational / school psychology on aspects such as the impact on children’s and young people’s learning, on teachers’ and lecturers’ teaching practice and professional wellbeing, and on how school communities are led and resourced in such a situation. How home schooling has affected the developmental processes of children would also be of interest.
Another area significantly affected by the pandemic has been the world of work. How people have been affected in their jobs, career progression, in their relationships with co-workers, how work has been managed, organizations led, would all be important issues to consider in relation to the psychological aspects of a pandemic that requires people in a normally social and organized environment to be apart.
It would be good, too, to read more from the field of health psychology. This area in particular can contribute numerous theories and instruments that deal with numerous threats and their management.
As we say in our editorial, special groups such as children, gender influences and special risk groups (e.g., those with physical or mental health conditions at risk of relapse) could be a focus. Possible interventions and more on preventive measures could also be featured.
Specific contributions to policy advice (e.g., on complex problem solving, contributions of social sciences and psychology) would also make sense.
Bernd Roehrle (PhD) is a retired professor of clinical psychology and psychotherapy formerly of the University of Marburg, Germany. He is a member of the standing committee for community psychology (EFPA). He is the spokesperson of the German Network for Mental Health. His research focuses on the effectiveness of preventive interventions and mental health promotion. He also examines psychological approaches to social networks and contextual conditions of psychotherapy.
Nicola Gale (C.Psychol, FBPsS) is currently Vice President and Treasurer of the European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations (EFPA) and led EFPA’s response to COVID-19. She is a former President of The British Psychological Society, is recently retired from City, University of London, and was a clinical lead in mental health and organizational development in the UK National Health Service.