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New COVID-Related Studies Point to Stressors and Coping Strategies for People with MS

January 11, 2021

Like everyone else, people living with MS are reacting to and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in different ways. A survey conducted by the National MS Society in May 2020 highlighted the impacts of the pandemic on people with MS. Among 797 respondents, the pandemic had already taken a financial toll—24% of people responded feeling negatively about their economic security. Other concerns voiced included fears of exposure to COVID-19 and the safety of returning to community activities.
MS researchers around the world have launched efforts to understand the scope of the effects of the pandemic on the MS community, with an eye toward developing strategies to deal with these effects. Two new studies were recently published.
COVID-19, MS, and Distress: Researchers from the University of Washington surveyed 500 people with MS in April and May, asking how they were experiencing distress and their perceptions of COVID risk. The results show that the distress levels were not significantly increased over levels reported for people with MS in previous studies. Also, distress levels were not strongly associated with the severity of MS or COVID-19 risk factors, but were reduced with respondents’ use of coping strategies. Distress levels did increase significantly in people who had experienced symptoms similar to COVID-19 infection.
Moving Forward: The authors comment that the results indicate the resilience of people with MS, who already face significant uncertainty due to the unpredictability of this disease. Of particular importance is to be less “threat-focused” – rather than withdrawing to reduce danger, people can learn ways to counteract stress and calm their minds. “Distress and risk perception in people living with multiple sclerosis during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic” by Drs. Alschuler, Ehde and team is published in MS and Related Disorders (2021 Jan;47:102618).  
COVID-19 and Employment: Employment was the focus of a survey administered by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers to 69 people with MS. The effects of the pandemic were significant even in this small sample. Among respondents, 48% reported some change to employment (working less hours/fewer shifts, shifting to work-from-home, and changing departments/positions). Nearly 30% were no longer employed due to the pandemic. Factors significantly associated with job loss included being Hispanic/Latinx and not having a college degree. About 40% reported some difficulty meeting expenses and 54% reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had affected their ability to access their MS healthcare.

Moving Forward:
  • Financial and employment resources are available to people with MS affected by the pandemic.
  • Vocational rehabilitation agencies are located in all states and offer job readiness training, job coaching, job placement assistance, mobility training and assistive technology assessments — with the goal of helping people maintain their current employment or find new employment that accommodates their needs. Unlike career counselors, vocational rehabilitation counselors have expertise in the medical and psychosocial aspects of disability and chronic illnesses, and how these affect employment, independence, and community participation.
  • The Job Accommodation Network at is a free resource for learning about, and confidential guidance on, workplace accommodations and disability employment issues.
  • This period of sheltering at home may provide an opportunity to develop work-related skills and knowledge. Volunteering can also allow individuals to develop work skills, maintain a schedule, and have a sense of purpose. There may be opportunities to help from home with local schools, churches, businesses, and community agencies.
“The employment impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Americans with MS: Preliminary analysis” by Malachy Bishop, PhD, and Stuart Rumrill, PhD, is published in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation (Published December 15, 2020).
Read more…
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This research was made possible by the participation of people with MS.
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About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis, and there is currently no cure for MS. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are leading to better understanding and moving us closer to a world free of MS. An estimated 1 million people live with MS in the United States. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, and it affects women three times more than men.


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