The COVID-19 pandemic and related measures have negatively impacted mental health worldwide. The main objective of the present longitudinal study was to investigate mental health in people living in Tyrol (Austria) and South Tyrol (Italy) during the COVID-19 pandemic and to report the prevalence of psychological distress among individuals with versus those without pre-existing mental health disorders (MHD) in the long-term (summer 2020–winter 2022). Here, we specifically focus on the relevance of spirituality and perceived social support in this regard.
161 individuals who had been diagnosed with MHD and 446 reference subjects participated in this online survey. Electronic data capture was conducted using the Computer-based Health Evaluation System and included both sociodemographic and clinical aspects as well as standardized questionnaires on psychological distress, spirituality, and the perception of social support.
The prevalence of psychological distress was significantly higher in individuals with MHD (36.6% vs. 12.3%) and remained unchanged among both groups over time. At baseline, the perception of social support was significantly higher in healthy control subjects, whereas the two groups were comparable in regards of the subjective relevance of faith. Reference subjects indicated significantly higher spiritual well-being in terms of the sense of meaning in life and peacefulness, which mediated in large part the between-group difference of psychological distress at follow-up. Notably, both faith and the perception of social support did not prove to be relevant in this context.
These findings point to a consistently high prevalence of psychological distress among people suffering from MHD and underscore the prominent role of meaning in life and peacefulness as a protective factor in times of crisis. Therapeutic strategies that specifically target spirituality may have a beneficial impact on mental health.