Last winter, as physical distancing and stay-at-home orders began to disrupt social and relational interactions around the world, the threat of COVID-19 became more than physical. Results from a national study on coping highlight how relationships both fostered and challenged our well-being during a global crisis. 

“Research repeatedly demonstrates that those with close personal connections thrive in terms of physical and mental health, compared to those with fewer or looser connections,” explains Dr. Karen Blair. “We wanted to examine how pandemic-induced disruptions in these connections were impacting relational, mental, and physical well-being.” 

In March, Dr. Karen Blair, assistant professor of psychology at St. Francis Xavier University and Dr. Kathryn Bell, assistant professor of psychology at Acadia University received a grant from the Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Research Coalition to expand their research examining mental health outcomes and optimal coping strategies during the pandemic. Using survey and daily diary methods, the research team tracked participant coping behaviors, relationship well-being, LGBTQ+ experiences and partner violence experiences. 

Results suggest LGBTQ+ youth are faring worse during COVID-19

Dr. Blair and Bell were concerned about the potentially disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on marginalized groups, like LGBTQ+ Canadians. 

Dr. Karen Blair

“LGBTQ+ community members may be especially vulnerable to disruptions in their social networks,” explains Dr. Blair. “They tend to have fewer social supports, experience greater social isolation and loneliness, and encounter more rejection from family and friends.”

Findings from their research indicate LGBTQ+ Canadians are indeed faring worse during COVID-19 than their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts. Amongst the LGBTQ+ respondents, there is concern for youth and university aged community members who reported feeling disconnected from their community following the initial closure of schools and universities last March. 

“The vast majority of students in our LGBTQ university student sample were attending universities in Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada. When the universities closed down early, these students were sent home to places all across the country and the globe even,” says Dr. Blair. “For some, this meant moving home to unsupported households where they reported feeling less freedom to be themselves or even the need to go back in the closet.” 

Couples reactions to the pandemic a predictor of intimate partner violence (IPV)

As part of the study, the researchers have also released a report detailing Canadians’ and Nova Scotians’ experiences with intimate partner violence (IPV) during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the report, more than 22% of Nova Scotian participants experienced psychological IPV, defined as the use or experience of verbal aggression or behaviours intended to coerce, control, threaten, or manipulate, toward or from one’s romantic partner. The data shows that respondents’ mental health was associated with IPV experiences.

Dr. Kathryn Bell

“Our findings indicate that couples who identified more negative effects of the pandemic on their relationships, such as increased tension or worsening of pre-pandemic problems, also reported higher rates of both IPV victimization and perpetration,” explains Dr. Bell. “Stress, use of avoidant coping strategies and difficulties regulating emotions were also associated with heightened risk of psychological IPV perpetration.”

Recommendations for support

Dr. Blair and Dr. Bell have compiled their preliminary results in the form of three reports designed to support provincial decision-makers, LGBTQ+ organizations, and domestic violence organizations. The researchers hope their work will help decision-makers understand how their constituents are coping with the pandemic, and what supports would be most valuable to enact. 

“These reports are designed to help inform public health and allied professionals whose work during disease outbreaks directly impacts the well-being of individuals, couples, families and the LGBTQ+ community,” says Dr. Bell. “Our goal is to provide evidence to guide optimal provincial responsiveness to the current outbreak, future COVID-19 waves and other disease outbreaks.”

To learn more about Dr. Blair and Bell’s research or to access the reports, visit their website: https://www.drkarenblair.com/covid


This research project was funded by the Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Research Coalition. Partners include Nova Scotia Health, Dalhousie University, Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, IWK Health Centre, IWK Foundation, QEII Health Sciences Foundation, Dartmouth General Hospital Foundation, and Research Nova Scotia. The Coalition is dedicated to leading and fostering a research environment that engages our academic partnerships and responds to the current needs of Nova Scotians and our health care system, in addition to maintaining the expertise in innovative research, discovery science, population/social sciences, and health system improvement. This funding partnership provides the opportunity to catalyze COVID-19 related research initiatives and achieve collective social impact. For more information visit https://researchns.ca/covid19-health-research-coalition/.