New research indicates there were elevated levels of fear and food insecurity during the early stages of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the United States, which in turn were associated with heightened risks of depressive symptoms. The findings have been published in Depression & Anxiety.
“My work has generally been focused on the intersection between health and place,” said study author Kevin M. Fitzpatrick (@kmfitzpat), a professor and Bernice Jones chair in Community at the University of Arkansas.
“The motivation for this particular study came from both that general interest, as well as a set of personal experiences that were directly related to the impact COVID-19 fear seemed to be having on the supply chain and general access to household goods. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to better understand how this personal reaction impacted systemic fracture, response, and the role of geographic place.”
The study was based on a nationally representative survey of 10,368 US adults between March 23 and March 30, which was funded by a $185,000 Rapid Response grant from the National Science Foundation.
The researchers found that those who were female, single, Hispanic, and/or not working reported higher depressive symptoms than average.
Fear of COVID-19 was strongly associated with depressive symptoms, especially among those who reported being less optimistic, feeling less in control of their lives, and having weaker social ties. The average fear of COVID-19 rating was nearly 7 on a scale of zero to 10, and about 30% of the participants reported their subjective fear score to be 8 or higher.
“Fear is an important individual response to both the known and unknown. How the US population responded early during the pandemic shows not only how the mechanism of fear drives behavior and response, but how important fear was/is to better understanding the mental health of persons during a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic,” Fitzpatrick told PsyPost.
Another study, based on the same data, found that fear was “not evenly distributed across the country, but rather clustered significantly around outbreaks, concentrations of confirmed COVID-19 cases, and ultimately death rates,” Fitzpatrick said.
The researchers also found that many participants reported experiencing moderate to high levels of food insecurity in the last 3 months, a factor that was also positively associated with depressive symptoms.
“America was experiencing significant food insecurity before the COVID-19 pandemic, and during the early stages of this crisis, 38% reported experiencing moderate to high food insecurity,” Fitzpatrick said.
According to a state-by-state analysis of the data, Alabama had the highest level of food insecurity in the survey at 47.7 percent, followed by Arkansas (47.4 percent), Tennessee (45.1 percent) and Kentucky (44 percent). Iowa had the lowest percentage of respondents reporting food insecurity, still very high at 24.5 percent, or 1 in 4 people.
Despite the new findings, scientists still have much to learn about the mental health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
“As researchers, we are in uncharted waters. There is so much that we don’t know, and the fraction that we do know is highly variable on who we talk to, where they live, what their lived experiences our with the virus, and how their local, state, and regional response has impacted their individual response,” Fitzpatrick explained.
“We need to learn more about the role of place in determining individual outcomes, we need to learn more about how/if individual behaviors can mitigate the spread of the virus and uniformly protect large segments of the population, and we need to learn more about the evolution of the virus and our individual and systemic response — what works, what doesn’t, etc.”
The study, “Living in the midst of fear: Depressive symptomatology among US adults during the COVID‐19 pandemic“, was authored by Kevin M. Fitzpatrick, Casey Harris, and Grant Drawve.