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A CLOSER LOOK: COVID-19 and its intersection with society and fear


Basically, a mental tsunami is on its way and we believe the findings show this.

ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — No doubt, the novel coronavirus has changed lives, responsibilities, mental health, and has created fear, to name a few situations, according to new research.

University of Arkansas Sociology Professor Kevin Fitzpatrick received several grants lately to study how COVID-19 affects on people from a sociological and psychological standpoint.

Here are some takeaways:

The pandemic led to higher levels of depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, and psychological trauma among American adults during the early months of its spread.

The internet survey, distributed in the last week of March, sampled 10,368 adults from across the country. Researchers have sought to better understand the sociological and psychological effects of the pandemic. “The common denominator in their findings is fear,” said Fitzpatrick, the first author of the studies.

“Fear is a pretty consistent predictor,” Fitzpatrick said, “coupled with a range of social vulnerabilities, consistently and significantly predict a range of mental health outcomes.”

It appears as though individual fear is higher in those places where there is a higher concentration of confirmed COVID-19 cases and/or a higher death rate, according to the data.

In a study focusing on symptoms of depression published in the journal Anxiety and Depression found that on average, survey respondents scored one point higher than the cutoff for clinical significance on a commonly used depression scale. Nearly a third of respondents were significantly above that level. They also found elevated depressive symptoms among socially vulnerable groups including women, Hispanics, the unemployed, and people who report moderate to high levels of food insecurity.

In a second study on suicidal thoughts, behaviors, and actions published in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, the researchers found that 15 percent of all respondents were categorized as high risk for suicide. Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, families with children, unmarried and younger respondents scored higher on a symptom assessment of suicide risk than their counterparts, and compounding factors such as food insecurity and physical health symptoms increased the risk among respondents.

The third study, published in the journal Psychological Trauma, examined fear and mental health consequences of the pandemic. When researchers asked respondents how fearful they were of COVID-19 on a scale of one-to-10, the average answer was seven. But fear of the disease and its consequences is not evenly distributed throughout the country, they found; it was highest in areas with a greater concentration of COVID-19 cases and among the most socially vulnerable groups.

All three papers are part of an initial, early push to understand the sociological impact of COVID-19, said Fitzpatrick. While the situation has changed substantially since March when this National Science Foundation-funded survey was administered, the research points to a need to better understand the consequences of the pandemic to be better prepared in the future.

Kevin Fitzpatrick, University Professor of Sociology. Fitzpatrick holds the Jones Chair in Community at the University of Arkansas.

“Now is the time to learn the lessons about this pandemic,” said Fitzpatrick. “This needs to be a teaching moment for us all. It or something like it will come along again, and we need to be better prepared for it, making sure that science is front and center, and not politics, with a careful eye on who are the most vulnerable and how can we do a better job of protecting them.”

Kevin Fitzpatrick, University of Arkansas Professor of Sociology

Colleagues Casey Harris, UARK associate professor of sociology, and Grant Drawve, UARK assistant professor of sociology contributed to the findings/research.

Arkansas Department of Health reports 600+ cases at the end of March to 20,800+ cases at the end of July.

  • March 31 – 617
  • April – 2,735 cases
  • May – 4,374 cases
  • June – 14,633 cases
  • July – 20,814 cases

Q&A with Sociology Professor Fitzpatrick about COVID-19 impacts

Define the intersection of COVID-19 and social vulnerabilities:

The intersection with fear is the key touchpoint. Fear is strongly related to social specific vulnerabilities, I.e. Race, ethnicity, social class, employment status, etc. and [to some extent] even political affiliation —In addition, fear really depends on where you live and who you are. Also, fear existed before the pandemic. Now, the fear has been exacerbated. If you look at two communities, Native and African-American, the severity of the pandemic was underestimated. Three months later, COVID-19 explodes and those two communities, on the reservations and in the deep South the level of fear rebounds. Hispanic and Asians were already fearful. We don’t know, but it could be political. Hispanic communities are dealing with immigration, a whole range of things that they thought they’d have fingers pointed at them. Asians were early targets because of the national politics that had some Americans saying COVID-19 was a plot by China. There was something about Asians that formed a level of distrust, that was nothing more than fake news. 

Kevin Fitzpatrick, University of Arkansas Professor of Sociology

Explain the research/data finding of “clear spatial diffusion of COVID-19 fear”:

Hypothesizing that fear is not distributed equally across the U.S., our analysis confirms that fear is concentrated in pockets. In some cases, the highest concentration is in communities where the confirmed cases or death rates are high. Also, fear may exist in communities where the number of social vulnerable is high or the concentration of poverty is high…Fear is as much about geography then it is who lives in these places…place matters for sure.

Kevin Fitzpatrick, University of Arkansas Professor of Sociology

Depressive symptoms on average with COVID-19:

We find that depression is elevated in the sample relative to what we would expect to see in the general population. It’s elevated where the average would meet or exceed the cutoff for clinical criteria. The CESD Scale, (Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale) has a theoretical range between 0-60 Once somebody reaches 16 (clinical caseness cutoff), they are considered to be at risk for depression. A score of twenty-five and above has them meeting the clinical criteria for depression. The average depression score [for the COVID-19 research] was elevated at 17. More than 25% of the sample actually was above 25. While it certainly not all fear, fear is an important contributor above and beyond other vulnerabilities and risks. The findings show depression is not equally distributed across those who are vulnerable. For example, women are more depressed than men, unemployed more depressed than employed, etc., Regardless our work finds that COVID-19 fear is a significant factor in understanding depressive symptoms.

Kevin Fitzpatrick, University of Arkansas Professor of Sociology

Is fear of COVID-19 equally distributed? :

No. It is not equally distributed across either population subgroups or geography. As we mentioned earlier, it depends on where people live. Fear is highest when the concentrations of COVID is highest. [When there are] potentially less health care, fewer community resources, and again, more concentrated pockets of vulnerable groups that tend to bear the brunt of this, more so than others. Whether it’s a function of getting help, lack of access to health care, race/ethnicity, poverty, or other factors, fear is inextricably tied to more negative health outcomes.

Kevin Fitzpatrick, University of Arkansas Professor of Sociology

Regarding mental health according to the study, “greater levels of depression amid the pandemic are also less likely to support quarantine measures.” Why?

Interesting twist. Very early in the pandemic, while doing data collection, we found some groups were less likely to participate in mitigation, even with the negative consequences of health and their level of fear. You’d think that those exhibiting the highest levels of fear would equally be the ones washing their hands, quarantining, wearing masks, etc, but in some instances, we were finding a high degree of fear did not correlate directly with mitigating behaviors. We observed, in some cases, groups of individuals who had reasons to be fearful but weren’t mitigating the same way as others.

Kevin Fitzpatrick, University of Arkansas Professor of Sociology

What about COVID-19 and mental health and insurance?

Interestingly, the consequence of this is, “if you believe what we’re writing” is that there is a mental tsunami is on its way and we may not be prepared for something like this. What are we going to do? The majority of individuals with even basic health insurance in America have little or no mental health coverage.  We really need to ask, “if what we are witnessing is true (and of course we believe it is) what is going to happen down the road when we begin to see large numbers of individuals suffering from the fallout of this public health crisis?” Low income America is not being taken care of now, and with the exponential growth in this problem, we could be witnessing a mental health pandemic of extraordinary proportions.

Kevin Fitzpatrick, University of Arkansas Professor of Sociology

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