Living under the shadow of COVID-19 has been exhausting, with many having exhibited different levels of mental distress or trauma. To understand the level of adult psychological trauma a year after the onset of the pandemic, PolyU researchers from the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences commenced a mixed-method study back in 2020, with funding from the Health and Medical Research Fund.


The study comprised two components – a large-scale telephone survey involving over 3,000 respondents and qualitative in-depth interviews with 31 senior adults. The telephone survey study was completed between December 2020 and February 2021 (during the fourth wave of the pandemic and about one year after its onset).


Findings revealed that more than one in ten (12.4%) of the respondents had exhibited post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and indicated that the severity of the situation should not be underestimated. Interestingly, the amount of time spent watching pandemic-related news was found to be associated with the severity of PTSD symptoms. Findings revealed that people who watched pandemic-related news for more than one hour a day tended to display more severe PTSD symptoms but, on the other hand, also closer compliance with anti-pandemic measures and related advice.


To understand clearly the mental status of the older adult population when facing the pandemic, the team interviewed 31 senior adults aged 65 or above during the fourth wave of the pandemic. It was found that the elderly generally believed COVID-19 was highly transmissible. Many had experienced worry, helplessness and depression, with some even expressing their frustration in interviews.


Regarding the perceptions of vaccination, it was found that the interviewees’ vaccination willingness was primarily affected by their personal experiences and opinions of their peers and families. Lack of understanding about the vaccines, cultural perception and peer pressure were the main contributors to hesitancy, while fragile social networks and weak family support were the greatest barriers to vaccination.


Upon reviewing the findings, Prof. David Shum, Yeung Tsang Wing Yee and Tsang Wing Hing Professor in Neuropsychology, Chair Professor of Neuropsychology and Dean of Faculty of Health and Social Sciences at PolyU, who led the study, said that: “Being in a constant state of stress and not managing this effectively could cause adverse impacts on our mood and daily lives, and may lead to mental health problems in the long run.” He appealed to the public to carefully assess PTSD symptoms caused by the pandemic and pay close attention to changes in their own bodies, feelings, behaviours and social activities. “One should seek help from professionals or social welfare organisations once symptoms begin to affect our daily lives for a period of time.”


Dr Judy Yuen-man Siu, Associate Professor of the Department of Applied Social Sciences and one of the research team members, added that: “Clearer health information about the vaccines should be disseminated to the elderly, while more resources should also be invested in the elderly support networks, in particular strengthening community support to the elderly before and after vaccination so as to allay their concerns about receiving vaccines.”


The study results were published in April 2022 in the academic journals BMC Psychiatry and BMC Geriatrics respectively.