Although research shows that the Covid-19 pandemic has led to declines in mental health, the existing research has not identified the pathways through which this decline happens.
The current study identifies the distinct pathways through which COVID-induced stressors (i.e., social distancing, disease risk, and financial stressors) trigger mental distress and examines the causal impact of these stressors on mental distress.
We combined evidence of objective pandemic-related stressors collected at the county level (e.g., lack of social contact, infection rates, and unemployment rates) with self-reported survey data from over 11.5 million adult respondents in the United States collected daily for eight months. We used mediation analysis to examine the extent to which the objective stressors influenced mental health by influencing individual respondents’ behavior and fears.
County-level, day-to-day social distancing predicted significantly greater mental distress, both directly and indirectly through its effects on individual social contacts, worries about getting ill, and concerns about finances. Economic hardships were indirectly linked to increased mental distress by elevating people’s concerns about their household’s finances. Disease threats were both directly linked to mental distress and indirectly through its effects on individual worries about getting ill. Although one might expect that social distancing from people outside the home would have a greater influence on people who live alone, sub-analyses based on household composition do not support this expectation.
This research provides evidence consistent with the thesis that the COVID-19 pandemic harmed the mental well-being of adults in the United States and identifies specific stressors associated with the pandemic that are responsible for increasing mental distress.