Researchers Use Hair Cortisol Test to Measure Stress Levels of Families During COVID-19

Data collected in Jordan adds to theory that the pandemic has been a global mental health crisis as well as a physical health crisis that must be addressed

Press Release

A research team led by Dr. Antje von Suchodoletz at NYU Abu Dhabi, in collaboration with Global TIES for Children and researchers at University of California Davis (Paul Hastings and Lindsey Partington) as well as Hashemite University in Jordan (Rana Dajani), have used a hair cortisol test to detect the impact of COVID-19 on stress levels in families. 

Titled Adrenocortical and psychosocial responses of families in Jordan to the COVID-19 pandemic, the paper used samples from cortisol tests of mothers and children taken in 2019 for a previous study, and compared them with cortisol tests conducted in June 2020. The research found that negative changes to family life predicted greater hair cortisol concentration for children, reflecting their cumulative stress experienced over the first three months of the pandemic. 

The paper then used these results to analyze the impacts of COVID-19 on families as a result of the pandemic, finding that raised levels of family adversity predicted worse mental health in children and mothers in December 2020. 


“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a global mental health crisis, as well as a physical health crisis. Seeing as the majority of the world’s children live in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), it is imperative to understand the factors that have contributed to their adjustment, as well as the adjustment of their parents, during the pandemic.”

Assistant Professor of Psychology at NYUAD Antje von Suchodoletz

Commenting on the need to address these mental health challenges, von Suchodoletz added: “Our research showed that in families experiencing greater disruption, the hair cortisol tests of children and mothers showed evidence of ‘stress getting under the skin’. These findings point to the importance of developing programs to address the daily needs of families in LMIC during periods of acute and prolonged crises, and particularly families with few economic resources to draw upon.”

The study concluded that without effectively tailored assistance to support the needs of families at risk, the adverse physiological and psychological consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely carry long-term effects on children’s future capacities to learn and thrive. Seen in this context, investing in ameliorative efforts would cost less than future expenses incurred by the loss of healthy and productive generations. 

The paper is part of a Special Section on the impact of COVID-19 on child development around the world, and has been accepted into Child Development, the leading journal in developmental psychology.

About NYU Abu Dhabi

NYU Abu Dhabi is the first comprehensive liberal arts and research campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university. NYU Abu Dhabi has integrated a highly selective undergraduate curriculum across the disciplines with a world center for advanced research and scholarship. The university enables its students in the sciences, engineering, social sciences, humanities, and arts to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world and advance cooperation and progress on humanity’s shared challenges. NYU Abu Dhabi’s high-achieving students have come from over 115 countries and speak over 115 languages. Together, NYU's campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai form the backbone of a unique global university, giving faculty and students opportunities to experience varied learning environments and immersion in other cultures at one or more of the numerous study-abroad sites NYU maintains on six continents.