The economic fallout from COVID increased risks for poor mental health

Key learning points:

  • Nearly a quarter of Californians reported experiencing severe or moderate mental health problems in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • That suffering was caused in part because the pandemic disrupted residents’ ability to pay for basic needs, including childcare.
  • A UCLA researcher says pandemic recovery efforts should include financial and social resources to help bridge those gaps.

A study published today by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research shows that the economic effects of COVID-19 increased the risk of poor mental health among adults in California.

The research, which draws data from the 2020 California Health Survey, revealed that because the pandemic disrupted many California adults’ ability to pay for housing, basic necessities and childcare, the risk of mental health problems increased, which in turn severely hampered their daily functioning.

During the first year of the pandemic, 12% of respondents reported experiencing severe psychological distress, and 11% reported moderate psychological distress. Those who had problems with finances or childcare due to the pandemic were up to twice as likely to have severe or moderate mental health problems.

“To reduce the additional risk of mental health problems and severe disability from COVID-related economic hardship, policymakers must provide all Californians with access to the financial and social resources that will help bridge the gap in economic uncertainty,” said Imelda Padilla- Frausto, a scientist at the research center. “Recovery from the pandemic begins with addressing many long-standing inequalities in the state.”

The study found that marginalized racial and ethnic groups were disproportionately affected:

  • 15% of Latino adults lost their jobs and 26% had work hours reduced; for white adults, those numbers were lower — 11% and 22%.
  • 16% of Black and African-American adults said they have difficulty paying their rent or mortgage, compared with 11% of Latinos, 9% of Asians, and 5% of White residents.
  • 15% of Black and African-American adults said they were struggling to pay for other basic needs because of the pandemic, compared to 12% of Latinos, 8% of people of Asian descent and 6% of white residents.

While the pandemic seemed to shed some light on those issues, UCLA researchers said these racial and ethnic disparities existed before COVID-19.

In addition, COVID-related problems with finances and childcare increased the risk of severe functional limitations meaning difficulties in performing daily tasks, such as household chores, work or school responsibilities, and problems around their social life and personal relationships for adults with severe or moderate mental health problems.

The risk of severe functional impairment in adults with severe or moderate mental health problems was significantly higher for people who had financial or childcare problems due to the pandemic.

For example, 55% of those who had severe or moderate mental health problems and who also had childcare problems said their personal relationships were severely compromised – and 55% of that group also said their ability to perform household chores was severely compromised . The struggle also took its toll on people’s social lives: 53% of those who had severe or moderate mental health problems and had problems with childcare said their ability to manage their social lives was severely compromised.

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