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UA sociologist research COVID-19 pandemic effects

Research by U of A sociologists from early in COVID-19’s spread shows increased levels of suicidal thoughts and other psychological trauma.

According to three studies published by sociologists from the University of Arkansas, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, American adults have experienced higher levels of depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, and psychological trauma.

Researchers seek to better understand the psychological and sociological effects of the pandemic. An internet survey in the last week of March sampled a total of 10,368 adults in the U.S. 

Kevin Fitzpatrick, Professor of sociology and first author of the studies, says the common denominator is fear.

“Fear is a pretty consistent predictor,” Fitzpatrick said. “What we found is that fear, coupled with a range of social vulnerabilities, consistently and significantly predict a range of mental health outcomes. Additionally, as originally hypothesized, 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.”

Fitzpatrick and his colleagues Casey Harris, associate professor of sociology, and Grant Drawve, assistant professor of sociology, found that on average, survey respondents scored one point higher than the cutoff for clinical significance on a commonly used depression scale. This was found in a study focusing on symptoms of depression published in the journal Anxiety and Depression. A third of respondents were found above that on a significant level. They also found depressive symptoms among socially vulnerable such as women, Hispanics, unemployed and individuals who report moderate to high levels of food insecurity.

In the second study on suicidal thoughts, behaviors and actions published in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 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 COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers asked respondents how fearful they were of COVID-19 on a scale of one-to-10. The average answer was seven but they found fear of the disease and its consequences are not evenly distributed throughout the country. It was highest in areas with a greater concentration of COVID-19 cases and among the most socially vulnerable groups. 

“In short, fear of the virus, and subsequent mental health problems that follow, remain entangled with the types of policies and measures used to combat the virus, both now and as recovery continues to unfold and the United States begins to slowly move forward,” the researchers wrote.

"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 so we’ll be better prepared in the future. 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.”

Fitzpatrick holds the Jones Chair in Community at the University of Arkansas.

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