Mental Health Among University Employees During the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Role of Previous Life Trauma and Current Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms

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Objective: Previous studies indicated that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has harmed the mental health of diverse samples. Adopting a trauma lens with a sample of university faculty and staff, this study examined risk conferred by previous exposure to traumatic life events (TLE) on pandemic-related mental health harm (MHH) and stress and the mediating influence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. Method: In Spring 2021, employees (N = 641) of a public university in the United States completed an online cross-sectional survey, including validated scales of TLE and PTSD and single-item measures of MHH and stress taken from published COVID-19 studies. A structural probit model was used to estimate: (a) direct effects of cumulative TLE on PTSD, MHH, and stress; and (b) indirect effects of cumulative TLE via PTSD adjusting for age. Gender was tested as a moderating influence. Results: Nearly 36% of the sample reported positive PTSD screens along with high levels of MHH (22.5%) and stress (42.3%). Cumulative TLE was significantly and positively associated with MHH and stress. Both genders experienced a negative impact on mental health and stress either fully or partially through PTSD symptoms; however, the gender by trauma interaction term was not significant. As age decreased, PTSD and MHH increased. Conclusion: Results suggest that PTSD symptoms play a crucial role in the experience of MHH and stress during the pandemic for those who endured previous trauma. Implications for employer policies, public health messaging, and mental health services are explored.