Pandemic-related Mental Health Care Needs Continue to Increase, Highlighting the Need for More Social-Behavioral Research

A report[1] published last week by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) shows an increase in anxiety, depression and people’s need for mental health services. According to the survey, between August 2020 and February 2021, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder increased from 36.4 percent to 41.5 percent. The percentage of those reporting an unmet mental health care need increased from 9.2 percent to 11.7 percent. Increases were largest among adults aged 18–29 years and those with less than a high school education.

Last year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) convened a consortium of federal agencies[2] to encourage research in social, behavioral and economic impacts of COVID-19, particularly for vulnerable populations. The agencies directed funds to jumpstart research efforts.

The research that has evolved over the last year examines a variety of topics, including:

  • The large-scale behavior changes and significant psychological burdens on individuals
  • How people navigate threats, as well as social and cultural influences on behavior
  • How communities support individuals in managing stress and coping
  • The role of social isolation and relationships
  • Health education and risk communication

The Need for IRBs with Specific Expertise in Social-Behavioral-Educational Research

Social behavioral research applies the behavioral and social sciences to the study of people’s responses to certain stimuli (both external and internal).  Such research is conducted in academic disciplines such as:

  • sociology
  • psychology
  • anthropology
  • economics
  • political science
  • history

Social, behavioral, and educational research (SBER) has its own set of unique needs. An IRB review of these protocols necessitates expertise that is different from IRBs evaluating biomedical research protocols. These IRBs are comprised of experts who are well versed at identifying and evaluating the psychological and social risks that are often associated with SBER. These experts — often nurses, psychologists, epidemiologists, and educators — evaluate risks such as:

  • Questionnaires about illegal behaviors that may damage subjects’ reputations or raise legal concerns
  • Collecting information from subjects about activities that may place them at risk of harm or legal action
  • Compromising a subject’s confidentiality, possibly jeopardizing employment and/or insurance coverage
  • Research involving deception
  • Providing subjects with unwelcome and disturbing information about themselves
  • Research that involves use of questions and/or procedures that can cause stress or embarrassment

Research will include observation, interviews, surveys, and data analysis. Some ongoing school-based research is also likely.

Most social behavioral research involves no therapeutic intervention, but the potential risks of social or psychological harm must still be considered. BRANY’s SBER IRB is specifically dedicated to the review of these important protocols, both retrospective and prospective, with particular focus on minimizing risk and protecting human subjects.

[1] Vahratian A, Blumberg SJ, Terlizzi EP, Schiller JS. Symptoms of Anxiety or Depressive Disorder and Use of Mental Health Care Among Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, August 2020–February 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. ePub: 26 March 2021. DOI: