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'Fear is a primary driver': Study details pandemic's psychological impact on Americans

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

A psychological survey of 10,368 American adults amid the coronavirus pandemic found that the pandemic has led to higher levels of depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, and psychological trauma.

“These are all factors contributing to poor mental health outcomes — higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms, as well as suicide ideation and general thoughts about suicide,” Kevin Fitzpatrick, Jones Chair in Community at the University of Arkansas and one of the co-authors of the studies, told Yahoo Finance. “Fear is a primary driver and an important factor in determining the mental health of our sampled U.S. adults.”

ORLANDO, FLORIDA, UNITED STATES - 2020/07/25: People wearing face masks wait to enter a Trader Joe's grocery store on the day that Florida reported 12,180 new coronavirus cases.  Florida has now passed New York as the U.S. state with the second-highest number of total virus cases behind California. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
People wearing face masks wait to enter a Trader Joe's grocery store on the day that Florida reported 12,180 new coronavirus cases. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The researchers, who published the finding across three studies, found that aside from the obvious health risks that come with coronavirus, stress arises from “the unique juxtaposition of extreme physical distancing, approaching geographical isolation, coupled with sustained isolation” as well as fear about losing jobs or not being able to pay bills or afford food.

“Unsurprisingly,” researchers wrote, “the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is beginning to be felt across multiple occupational, social, economic, and geographic boundaries in the United States—uncertainty, fear, and a new level of stress may be slowly seeping into the American psyche, with consequences that have yet to be fully understood.”

‘The pandemic only worsened the circumstances’

Fitzpatrick noted that the fear was not equally distributed across social vulnerability groups and “found to be the highest among the more vulnerable in our society — persons of Hispanic descent, unemployed/laid off, families with children, foreign-born residents, women, the elderly, and Asian Americans.”

The South is particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)
The South is particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

In terms of contracting COVID-19, the disease cause by coronavirus, Black Americans have died from coronavirus at a rate 3.7 times higher than White Americans while Latinos have died at a rate 2.8 times higher.

And many of those individuals are the ones being hit the hardest financially by the pandemic — a Pew Research study found that 61% of Hispanic households have reported a job loss or pay cut, compared to only 38% of white adults and 41% of Black adults.

Given the economic effects, food insecurity is a critical source of anxiety. According to the new survey, respondents who reported more food insecurity were also more likely to report suicidal thoughts amid the pandemic.

Volunteers help load a vehicle with boxes of food at a food bank in the Los Angeles County city of Duarte, California on July 8, 2020 as the record for most coronavirus cases in a single day is set in California. - Oxfam, the confederation of 19 charitable independent organizations focusing on the alleviation of global poverty, is due to release an embargoed report on July 9 suggesting that COVID-19 may kill more people worldwide due to hunger than the illness itself. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
Volunteers help load a vehicle with boxes of food at a food bank in the Los Angeles County city of Duarte, California on July 8, 2020. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

“The U.S. was already experiencing considerable food insecurity, particularly among low-income, minority, and aging populations,” Fitzpatrick said. “The pandemic only worsened the circumstances of these socially and economically vulnerable, while at the same time, seeing a whole new group of food insecure persons emerge as unemployment changed everything. Food insecurity interestingly is partly driven by fear, but other risk factors as well.”

Vulnerability is directly related to place’

Fear reported in the survey varied by geographic regions of the country as well.

The survey was conducted in March, back when stay-at-home measures were first put into place and New York City was the epicenter of the pandemic. And according to Fitzpatrick, fear at any given point will be particularly concentrated in specific areas where there are higher confirmed cases and death rates.

The U.S. has now passed 5 million coronavirus cases. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)
The U.S. has now passed 5 million coronavirus cases. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

Vulnerability is directly related to place — persons living in places where there is a greater concentration of COVID-19 cases and higher mortality as a result of the virus are clearly more fearful,” he said. “This was true when we collected the data in the earlier months of the pandemic, and it’s likely to be exacerbated now by the steady rise in cases and mortality, particularly concentrated in hotspots around the country.”

Furthermore, for some, fear goes deeper than health or financial issues.

“Asian-American, foreign-born, and even persons of Hispanic descent were early targets of hate groups, groups being somehow blamed for the virus, posing threats to our national security and borders,” Fitzpatrick said. “These unnecessary reactions by many created an early fear in some.”

Hate crimes against Asian Americans rose as the coronavirus reached the U.S. Because the virus was traced back to China, many people began blaming Asian populations for its spread. President Trump and many members of his administration have referred to the coronavirus as “the China virus.”

U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions during an interview with Reuters about China, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and other subjects in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., April 29, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions during an interview with Reuters about China, the coronavirus pandemic and other subjects in the Oval Office of the White House, April 29, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

‘A mental health tsunami’

More than 25% of the 10,000 respondents in the Arkansas study reported moderate to severe anxiety symptom scores, “where clinical treatment is warranted,” the paper noted.

And paradoxically, those experiencing greater levels of depression through the pandemic are less likely to support social distancing measures, like businesses closing and canceling of events and mass gatherings.

“COVID-19 fear, and the poor mental health that accompanies it, also means some communities will face a steeper uphill battle to recover from this public health crisis,” the paper noted.

MIAMI BEACH, FL - JULY 06: A girl wearing a face mask with outdoor dining space on Ocean Drive will be permitted to stay open, while the indoor portion of the restaurant will be closed to patrons following a clarification from Mayor Carlos Gimenez, is seen on July 06, 2020 in Miami Beach, Florida. Miami Beach has mandated that masks be worn in public, where social distancing is not possible. With a surge in COVID-19 cases, Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Monday has ordered the closing of all restaurants, gyms and fitness centers, ballrooms and short-term vacation rentals. Mayor Gimenez will allow beaches to re-open on July 7th after being closed over the 4th of July weekend. (Photo by Johnny Louis/Getty Images)
A girl wearing a face mask with outdoor dining space on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Johnny Louis/Getty Images)

The long-term mental health effects of the pandemic remain to be seen but Fitzpatrick is warning that they need to be addressed sooner than later.

“I do believe that we’re witnessing or will witness a mental health tsunami both here in the United States as well as around the world that will likely put a significant strain on mental health professionals,” he said. “This is a profession that’s already under-resourced… Typically it’s under-supported in health insurance programs where in some cases, individuals have very little mental health coverage to address the complicated needs they will likely have in the weeks and months and even years ahead.”

Adriana is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.

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