Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Doctor of Philosophy




Hayden, Elizabeth P.


The COVID-19 pandemic was a pervasive disaster, creating stress for people across the globe. As such, understanding how pandemic-related stress has impacted individuals’ mental health is vital for guiding intervention programs and limiting the impact of future similar crises. This is especially true for youth, who are at heightened risk for mental disorder and may experience pandemic-related social stress as particularly aversive, given the developmental challenges unique to this period. Although substantial efforts have been made to measure the impact of the pandemic-related stress on individuals’ mental health, the pandemic’s relatively sudden onset has limited researchers’ abilities to conduct fulsome longitudinal investigations. Longitudinal assessments of youths’ mental health, especially with shorter intervals between follow-ups, will contribute to a more nuanced understanding of how youths responded to this crisis on a week-by-week basis. I addressed these gaps in the literature by developing and factor analyzing a measure of pandemic-related stress responses in youths and caregivers (Study 1), examining how youths’ pre-pandemic psychophysiological stress responses shaped their adjustment during the COVID-19 pandemic (Study 2), and by examining associations between youths and caregivers internalizing symptoms at the onset of COVID-related lockdowns (Study 3). Findings included that my measure of pandemic-related stress responses could be used similarly for caregivers and youths (Study 1), that stress-related cortisol output differentially predicted boys’ and girls’ internalizing symptoms (Study 2), and that caregivers’ and youths’ depressive symptoms influenced each other reciprocally over time, while youths’ depressive symptoms unidirectionally predicted caregivers’ anxious symptoms (Study 3). Implications for mental health interventions in the context of future global crises are discussed.

Summary for Lay Audience

The COVID-19 pandemic created significant stress for community-dwelling individuals. This is especially true for youths and their caregivers, who faced additional stressors such as school closures and limited access to childcare. Given that youths are at greater risk for developing symptoms of anxiety and depression even outside of significant stressors, it is especially important that we understand pandemic-related factors that may further contribute to this risk. Although researchers have made efforts measure changes in youths’ mental health during the pandemic, the stress and chaos of the pandemic has limited our ability to thoroughly assess these changes on a week-by-week basis. My dissertation has helped to answer some of these questions by (1) developing a measure that we can use to assess youths’ and caregivers’ responses to pandemic-related stress, (2) examining if biological responses to short-term stress before the pandemic could help us predict youths’ well-being during the pandemic, and (3) examining if caregivers’ and youths’ symptoms of anxiety and depression effect one another over time. In summary, I found that both social and biological factors can help us predict which youths and caregivers were more likely to have difficulty with mental health problems during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Future research would benefit from incorporating these and other risk factors into a larger model predicting risk of mental health difficulties so that we can identify who would benefit most from support in the event of future crises.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.