CUNY SPH Weekly Survey Analyzes Mental Health Impacts of COVID-19

By: Jonathan Block

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on all New Yorkers, not the least has been mental health impacts. Since March, the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy has been conducting a weekly COVID-19 tracking survey to get an idea of how New Yorkers are responding to the pandemic, health and otherwise. This includes risk perception of contracting the virus, compliance with social distancing, impacts on jobs loss, housing and food insecurity, sources of COVID-19 and related health information, and mental health responses.

Mental health questions were added to the survey during its second week, which was conducted March 20-22. This was right after New York City became the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, restaurants and non-essential businesses were ordered shut, office workers began working from home en masse, and social distancing and stay-at-home restrictions took hold.

The top risk factors for mental health issues, such as anxiety and  depression, identified in the survey were perceived risk of infection, having someone sick at home (the most predictive of anxiety and depression), job loss, food insecurity, and being an essential worker.

In week 2, the only mental health question asked was about social isolation, and 22% of respondents answered in the affirmative. By the following week, that figure has nearly doubled to 43%. The same week, participants were asked if they had feelings of anxiety and depression, and 44% and 35%, respectively, replied yes.

From weeks 4-6, these figures stayed roughly the same. But that changed by week 8, as figures began to decline, with 35% reporting feeling social isolation, 33% saying that felt anxious and 24% having feelings of depression. In addition, in April, 6 in 10 respondents were not hopeful about the future.

To put these figures in context, about 10%-20% of the population experiences anxiety or depression, according to Victoria Ngo, PhD, who heads SPH’s Center for Innovation in Mental Health and an associate professor in the Department of Community Health and Social Sciences. Ngo says that the results reflect “the collective trauma the pandemic is having on us.”

Data from the surveys also showed that rates of anxiety and depression differed at certain points depending on racial and ethnic group. Early on in the survey, rates of anxiety and depression were initially highest among the Latino and Asian-American communities. Ngo says that early on, Latinos were hit by economic hardship, such as job losses. Such losses then began to affect Asian-American communities. But Ngo notes that Asian-Americans have had to deal with another factor that is unique to that community and contributes heavily to anxiety and depression – harassment and blame for the virus itself.

Unlike other racial and ethnic groups, the top stressor among Asian-Americans was feeling unsafe. For other groups, the top stressors were concerns about their family and loved ones getting sick, their own health, followed by feeling unsafe and remaining isolated. Surprisingly, only 9% of respondents reported losing their job as a top stressor.

“This speaks to the discrimination and harassment [Asian-Americans] are facing relating to coronavirus,” says Ngo. “It’s been somewhat invisible and hasn’t been talked about [as much as it should] in the media.”

The top coping mechanism New Yorkers engaged in to deal with stressors surrounding the pandemic were healthy behaviors such as exercise, walking, or engaging in self-care. This was followed by social support, such as regular communication with friends and family, and engaging in media, entertainment or surfing the Internet. About 7.5% of respondents said they were trying to avoid stressful feelings altogether and not coping, which Ngo notes is not healthy.

To find out more about these results and others from the CUNY SPH COVID-19 tracking survey, check out this video of the Dean’s Virtual Grand Round Series from May 8 on the topic.