Season 2, Episode 9 - Researcher Hilary Marusak, Ph.D., on how COVID-19 is impacting schoolchildren's mental health

Hilary Marusak, Ph.D., talks about how COVID-19 is impacting the mental health of schoolchildren.


Episode notes

Hilary Marusak, Ph.D., joins host Darrell Dawsey to talk about the findings of a new study that looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the mental health of young people in metro Detroit and how the findings inform the necessary steps to helping them heal.


Dr. Marusak received her Ph.D. in translational neuroscience in 2016. Her primary research interests are in identifying the effects of early adversity (e.g., abuse, violence exposure, medical trauma) on brain and behavioral development in children and adolescents. Her long-term goal is to develop interventions capable of reducing psychiatric symptoms and improving quality of life for young people affected by early stress and/or mental health problems.

Additional resources

Follow Hilary Marusak on Twitter

Follow Hilary Marusak on Facebook

Read Hilary Marusak's report "Are the kids really alright? Impact of COVID-19 on mental health in a majority Black American sample of schoolchildren"

Read about Hilary Marusak's award from the Society of Neuroscience


Announcer:                   Welcome to Today@Wayne, a podcast that engages and informs the Wayne State University campus community. With news announcements, information and current events discussions relevant to the university's goals and mission, Today@Wayne serves as the perfect form for our campus to begin a conversation, or keep one going. Thanks for joining us.

Welcome to the Today@Wayne podcast. I'm Darrell Dawsey. While the early brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic was largely felt by American adults, the virus has always posed unique threats to children. And now as the surge in cases in 2021 show just how much children and be physically vulnerable to the virus, we are also learning just how much of a toll the outbreak has taken on kids' mental health.

Researchers at Wayne State University recently published a study titled, "Are the kids really all right? Impact of COVID-19 on mental health in a majority Black American sample of schoolchildren." which focused on mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in a group of elementary aged children from two public schools and one private school, all located in urban areas with high infection rates in suburban Detroit. The results showed that a child's fear of getting COVID 19 or having a loved one contract the virus increased over time, independent of race and socioeconomic status.

So what are the long term implications of this study, and how do we address the mental health issues in children that arise from the pandemic? Here to speak to these and other questions is a co-author of the study, Hilary Marusak, Ph.D, who also works as Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at WSU. Welcome, Professor Marusak.

Hilary Marusak:             Thank you so much for having me.

Darrell Dawsey:             Thanks for joining us. Let's jump into it. Tell me a little bit about the origins of your study, how it began. I know that it didn't set out to study how these kids were impacted by COVID-19. What were the early origins of that study?

Hilary Marusak:             Yeah, I think nobody expected this, but yeah, it was one of the things that we just couldn't ignore. We actually had a study going on prior to the onset of the pandemic. And this is actually pretty rare to have data on baseline or pre-pandemic mental health.

Typically with disasters like COVID-19, we could characterize that as a disaster, we study families and children after the onset of those things. And we asked them to retrospectively recall how they were doing before the pandemic, but obviously my memory is not great. I can't remember what I did yesterday, so it's not super reliable to do it that way.

In this study, we actually had the unique opportunity to look at how kids were actually doing before the pandemic and then afterwards. And again, as a developmental scientist, we're not focused on COVID-19 in our research, but we certainly could not ignore the impact that it has on children and families.

Darrell Dawsey:             Let's talk about that. What has been the impact? What are the key findings from your study? What are the things that, I guess, we should most be alarmed by or concerned about?

Hilary Marusak:             Yeah, that's a great question. I think when people think COVID, they obviously think about the enormous physical effects that it can have on folks. And I don't think they often think about kids, because kids to don't typically show a lot of physical symptoms from getting the virus.

But psychologically, if we actually ask them how they're doing, which I don't think a lot of people do, just how kids are doing, there's a lot going on under there. A lot of them have a lot of fears and concerns in the same way that us adults do. And their concerns and fears may be similar or also different to what we see in adults. And I think it's just really important to actually ask them how they're feeling and what are they afraid of.

And there are a couple different things that stood out to us. One of them was that kids were not super afraid that they would get the virus and have bad things happen to them, they were really concerned about loved ones. So their parents, their grandparents, aunts and uncles, classmates, even people in the world. They were very concerned about people getting the virus and getting sick with it. And that fear actually increased over time. We surveyed kids a couple times during the pandemic. And the second time when they were getting close to school starting, they actually reported more fear of those things.

I think fear is one of those things that is on a spectrum. And there were a lot of kids in the sample who had a little bit of fear, but a lot of kids who actually had really high fear. They were afraid of this every single day. And again, we wouldn't have known that if we didn't actually ask kids about these things.

Darrell Dawsey:             That's really interesting as you say that, why is it that you think we don't ask our children stuff like this? I mean, we see this once in a generation pandemic ravaging communities. I've read about things like, the social services system being impacted, certainly our schools have been impacted, daycare centers have been impacted.

Why do you think it's just ... I mean, I understand that when the virus hit a lot of the physical toll was obviously on adults, but why do you think we've overlooked kids so far, this way?

Hilary Marusak:             Yeah. Well, I think it must be hard as a parent and I'm only a fur parent, so I can't speak to what it actually ... All the stress it is to be a human parent. But I think it's tricky with kids. I think they don't totally understand what's happening, and especially with the younger kids that ... We focused on elementary school age. So a lot of parents feel like they want to protect their kids and not share anything that might be too scary, and I completely understand that. I think there's just ... It's really unclear about how much we should share with them.

And actually one of the things we didn't publish in this study, but one of the things that we looked at was how parents are talking to their kid about the virus. Are they sharing their thoughts and their feelings, and that was actually more helpful. So parents who shared what was happening with the virus, very evidence-based information, shared their thoughts and their feelings and showed their kid that they are also struggling, those kids seem to be doing better, although that was unpublished data. I thought that was just interesting.

Darrell Dawsey:             What should we be concerned about long-term? What are the long-term potential implications here, particularly as it speaks to issues around anxiety, PTSD? What should we be thinking about for down the road?

Hilary Marusak:             Yeah. Great question. Something we're thinking about is when fear persists, and when it becomes problematic and chronic and it begins to interfere with daily life. And that's why I think just simply asking kids how they're doing and talking about these things and sharing your own feelings. That's step one, is really seeing what's happening and identifying kids who might be struggling and need a little bit of extra help.

And like you said, we're in a pandemic, so it would be weird to not have those feelings of anxiety and stress at some point. It's just, we do need to figure out who is on the higher end of things, and make sure that it doesn't persist and it doesn't become debilitating and interfere with classwork and their family life.

Darrell Dawsey:             Now you focused on two particular communities in the Metro area, Oak Park, Michigan and Southfield, Michigan, which are both predominantly African-American suburban enclaves right outside of Detroit. But are there reasons for us to think this is an issue that we're seeing all over the country, not just in this particular region? Or is this something that, according to your research, would suggest that this is unique to our particular area?

Hilary Marusak:             Yeah, good question. We weren't equipped to, to answer whether this is different than what happens, say, in Chicago or another city. But when we were looking at the data, we realized that there are very few studies about minority groups and how they're doing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And at least here in Detroit very early on in the pandemic, lower resource communities and Black American communities were hit hardest by the virus of itself, so it just made sense for us to actually look at the psychological impact. And there wasn't any data and anyone talking in the literature about those communities. We felt that we needed to get the word out and actually look at how those communities are doing, given that they are especially vulnerable to disasters and pandemics.

Darrell Dawsey:             Yeah. Well, it sounds like you're filling a very important, needed informational void. Well, we're going to get ready to wrap up, but I just want to give you the opportunity to talk about anything maybe that we didn't discuss or that I didn't touch on. Or is there other work that people should be aware of or are there other aspects of the study that we should know about? What do you have to say in closing?

Hilary Marusak:             Yeah, thanks for that. I think one thing I didn't mention yet was fears about social distancing, or physical distancing as it's been called. That was really related to socio status. So kids who grew up in families with lower household income for example, they felt a lot of fear about that. And what I'm talking about here is fear of missing out on celebrations or birthdays, not feeling like you're close with your friends.

And I think what we're seeing there is really a digital divide. And I could imagine the well resourced families have more access to things like cell phones and iPads and ways to keep in touch with their family and their friends, versus the kids who didn't have access to those things. I think that they really felt like they were missing out. And we know from decades of research at this point that that social connection is really important for not only brain development in kids, but also just us feeling like we have a community and it's important for mental wellbeing.

And I think there's a lot of talk about loneliness in adults. And I think that was one aspect of this study that really stood out to me, was that loneliness can really be something that impacts kids' mental health, and we should also pay attention to that. And making those extra efforts to really provide opportunities for the kids to connect with their classmates in a safe way.

Darrell Dawsey:             And you got whole classes of kids who never experienced field trips, and didn't go-

Hilary Marusak:             Exactly.

Darrell Dawsey:             ... to their first school dance. And a lot of those kinds of things that help the socialization process.

Hilary Marusak:             Milestones, yeah.

Darrell Dawsey:             Yeah, absolutely.

Hilary Marusak:             Absolutely.

Darrell Dawsey:             All right. Well, Dr. Hilary Marusak, we want to thank you for joining us here on the Today@Wayne podcast. We really appreciate your time and we're looking forward to your next study, and the next time we can get you on the podcast to talk a little bit about it, okay.

Hilary Marusak:             Thank you so much for having me.

Darrell Dawsey:             All right, absolutely. Thank you so much. This is the Today@Wayne podcast. I'm Darrell Dawsey. Thank you.

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