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Online ISSN: 1099-176X    Print ISSN: 1091-4358
The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics
Volume 23, Issue 3, 2020. Pages: 93-100
Published Online: 1 September 2020

Copyright © 2020 ICMPE.


 

Psychological Distress and Coronavirus Fears During the Initial Phase of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States

 

Michael T. French,1 Karoline Mortensen,2 Andrew R. Timming3

1Professor, Department of Health Management and Policy, Miami Herbert Business School University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, USA
2Associate Professor, Department of Health Management and Policy, Miami Herbert Business School, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, USA
3Professor of Human Resource Management, School of Management, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne, VIC, Australia

* Correspondence to: Professor Michael T. French, Department of Health Management and Policy, Miami Herbert Business School, University of Miami 5202 University Drive P.O. Box 248162, Coral Gables, FL, 33124-2030, USA.
Tel.: +1-305-284 2296
E-mail: mfrench@miami.edu

Note: Authors are listed in alphabetical order.

Source of Funding: None declared.

Abstract
The COVID-19 pandemic is a significant health and economic crisis around the world. During these unprecedented times, it is important to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on psychological distress and overall fear associated with the virus. From March 22-26, 2020, we collected data on U.S. residents (N=2,124) to measure levels of psychological distress with the 10-item Kessler scale. Using Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regression, we find that protective factors against psychological distress include age, gender (male), and physical health. Factors exacerbating psychological distress include Hispanic ethnicity and a previous mental illness diagnosis.Similar factors are significantly related to fear of the virus and self-assessed likelihood of contracting it. The relatively high mean score (21.12) for psychological distress during early stages of the pandemic suggests government officials, policy-makers, and public health advocates should act quickly to address emerging mental health problems.


Introduction: The COVID-19 pandemic is a significant health and economic crisis around the world. The U.S. saw a rapid escalation in laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 and related deaths in March, 2020. The financial consequences of a virtual economic shutdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus are widespread and debilitating, with over 30 million Americans (about 20% of the labor force) filing for unemployment benefits since mid-March. During these unprecedented times, it is important to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on psychological distress and overall fear associated with the virus.

Data: To gain an understanding of the overall levels and predictors of psychological distress experienced in the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., a survey was administered online to over 2,000 individuals residing in the country. The survey instrument was administered between March 22-26, 2020, during which time the country was suffering through a period of exponential growth in COVID-19 cases and fatalities. It was administered via MTurk, a popular crowdsourcing platform increasingly used by social scientists to procure large samples over a brief period of time. A short, valid screening instrument to measure psychological distress in individuals, the Kessler 10 scale was developed in the U.S. in the 1990s as an easy-to-administer symptom assessment. The first dependent variable is the respondents' summated Kessler 10 score. The second dependent variable is a 7-category measure of how afraid the subject is about the novel coronavirus. The final dependent variable is also a 7-category scale, this time measuring self-reported likelihood of contracting the coronavirus. A variety of socio-demographic variables and health status were collected to analyze factors associated with psychological distress and mental health.

Methods: Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) multiple regression was employed to analyze these data.

Results: We find that protective factors against psychological distress include age, gender (male), and physical health. Factors exacerbating psychological distress include Hispanic ethnicity and a previous mental illness diagnosis. Similar factors are significantly related to fear of the virus and self-assessed likelihood of contracting it.

Discussion: The COVID-19 pandemic is associated with high levels of psychological distress in the U.S. The Kessler 10 mean value in our sample is 21.12, which falls in the likely to experience mild mental illness category, yet is considerably higher compared to one of the largest and earliest benchmark studies validating the scale. Psychological distress is one element of overall mental health status that could be influenced by the COVID-10 pandemic. Other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders could also be affected by the pandemic. We encourage researchers to examine these and other mental health disorders in future research on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conclusion: The relatively high mean score (21.12) for psychological distress during early stages of the pandemic suggests government officials, policy-makers, and public health advocates should act quickly to address emerging mental health problems.

Received 4 May 2020; accepted 1 June 2020

Copyright 2020 ICMPE