The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to the world, from the heart-wrenching human toll to the economic side-effects that will reverberate for years to come. To combat these serious problems, we need serious solutions. To find some of those solutions, U of T has set up the Toronto COVID-19 Action Fund, which aims to give researchers the funds they need to conduct meaningful research on the various aspects and consequences of this pandemic.
Sociology Professor Andrew Miles is one of the researchers whose study was selected by the fund. As part of The Medium’s “Quarantine Stories” series, he sat down with us to talk about his research that focuses on how prosocial behaviour can help one’s wellbeing and safeguard our mental health.
Commenting on his reaction to having his research selected by the Toronto COVID-19 Action Fund, Professor Miles explained how empowering it was to have the necessary support to carry out his work. He also revealed his initial hesitation in applying for the funding, saying, “I remember having this moment where I sat, and I thought for a while, and I wasn’t sure that we had anything to offer. [But] I have this group of graduate students, and one of them voiced this idea that if there’s anything that we can do, we should, and that resonated with me. So, as I thought about it more, I realized that potentially we could help out an aspect of this problem that is recognized but has not been the first point of concern.” This inspiring moment is what kickstarted Miles’ and his team’s research.
Miles’ current research is built on a foundation of studies, which suggests that doing kind things for other people causes one to feel good. These studies on prosocial behaviour have shown a link between two variables: kind acts, and happiness and a better mental health.
In the context of the pandemic, the need to socially distance ourselves from others has caused people to feel isolated. Thereby, special management efforts were established to manage mental health challenges that arose due to the lack of human and physical connections. Professor Miles stressed that these mental health challenges don’t “necessarily have to be full-blown depression and anxiety, but simply extra stress from not being able to go out and do the things that we normally do—potentially all of these real challenges that even the best regimen of Zoom calls can’t take care of.”
Miles also stated that studies suggest doing kind things for others could give you an emotional boost, even if that action can’t be done physically. If this is true in a pandemic, and under circumstances where people have undergone great hardships, he hopes that engaging in prosocial behaviour could be an ideal intervention for dealing with the unique mental health challenges born out of the pandemic. He introduces this positive way of thinking as bringing light to the unexpected circumstances we have been placed under.
When speaking about the impact he hopes this research will have, Professor Miles focused on two key ideas. The first being that he hopes the scientific contributions of his research will help to fill in some gaps of knowledge in studies about how effective prosocial behaviour is as a treatment. Specifically, identifying who it works for, the factors that alter the effectiveness of the treatment, and whether it can prevent or reduce depression and anxiety may be the key to help those suffering from various mental illnesses, even in a non-pandemic setting. Secondly, he hopes to determine if further investigation is worthwhile and if discoveries therein could be helpful to those struggling.
To those who may be struggling with their mental health, Professor Miles urges them to reach out to a mental health professional if they find themselves in a “repeated pattern of bad days.” He also acknowledged that “mental health challenges are not always particularly well understood, and they’re somewhat stigmatized. People don’t want to sit there and say, ‘maybe I’ve got a mental health challenge,’ because we don’t see it the same way that we see a broken bone.”
Miles emphasized that mental illness doesn’t reflect one’s strength of character and that many mental conditions are “extremely treatable.”
Amid a year of trials and tribulations brought on by the pandemic, Professor Miles and his team’s research into the practical ways to aid our mental health and the people around us is crucial to surviving the isolation of social distancing. His work also illuminates the concrete steps that can help alleviate the side effects of the pandemic and reminds us that sticking together through dark times can bring light into our lives. To learn more about Professor Miles’ research, you can visit his website at www.andrewamiles.com/.
If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally or with their mental health, please reach out to the Health and Counselling Centre at UTM or visit their website to get help.