COVID-19 Fear, Food Insecurity, Place, and Mental Health

Interview with Dr. Kevin M. Fitzpatrick on the consequences of COVID-19.

Posted Jul 13, 2020

Kevin M. Fitzpatrick/Used With Permission
Source: Kevin M. Fitzpatrick/Used With Permission

COVID-19 has caused a myriad of complex issues for millions of people. The mental health consequences at the intersection of coronavirus fears, pre-existing social inequities, and food insecurity have a lot to do with where a person lives. The following interview explores some important research on how people in America are responding to COVID-19 and why.

Dr. Kevin M. Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., is a University Professor and the Jones Endowed Chair in Community in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Arkansas. Dr. Fitzpatrick received his Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of New York-Albany. He has six books and over 85 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters that focus on the intersection of health, place, and social vulnerabilities.

JA: How did you first get interested in this topic? 

KF: Interestingly, I was drawn into this work through a personal experience in early March. I had gone to my local Sam’s Club and was surprised to find nothing available at a store that just a few weeks ago had everything. Clearly, people were expressing a wide range of emotions related to the novel coronavirus, but as a researcher, it wasn’t clear to me how, and at what level those emotions were being expressed.

I immediately went back to my office and huddled with two of my colleagues at the University of Arkansas. We settled on proposing a research project to the National Science Foundation and were fortunate enough to receive a RAPID grant to explore some of the questions we had formulated related to the individual risk, fear, social, behavioral, and health consequences of living through the COVID-19 pandemic. As a researcher interested in how place and health intersect, particularly among the most socially vulnerable, this was a unique opportunity.

JA: What was the focus of your study?

KF: This project explores the multidimensional social, psychological, and health-related individual responses to life during the COVID-19 pandemic among a representative sample (10,368) of US adults. We were interested in understanding fear, how people self-rated their fear, how different fear was across vulnerable social groups, how different it was across geographic space, and how fear impacted social and psychological attitudes and behaviors.

In addition, we asked participants their zip code. This was important for us because it documented the geospatial relationships between fear and place—which no one really had done up to now—particularly as it relates to public health crises like COVID-19. Knowing zip code allowed us to pair individual responses with characteristics of the communities people live in. Specifically, we wanted to know: Are there certain types of communities where fear is highest? What do those communities look like in terms of their sociodemographic and socioeconomic composition? Is fear linked to the spread of the virus in communities that had the highest level of novel coronavirus cases?

JA: What did you discover in your study?

KF: Three general findings are important to highlight. One, the level of fear among our sample of respondents is dramatic. On a scale of 0-10 when asking persons how fearful they were of novel coronavirus, on average for the more than 10,000 responses, the answer was 7. That seems elevated and as we look at the relationships with fear and other measures in the study, we are intrigued by how much fear is connected to individual attitudes and behaviors that were disease-related.

Two, another important discovery is related to food insecurity. Much of our earlier research in the last several years has been focused on understanding food insecurity and how limited access to food, healthy foods, and knowledge about food is impacting people’s mental and physical health. We were surprised to find that in the over 10,000 persons that responded to our survey, 38 percent reported moderate to high levels of food insecurity. As we suggested earlier regarding fear, food insecurity is not evenly distributed across the geography of America. Food insecurity is concentrated in the ever-growing pockets of inequality, inequity, segregation, and food deserts across the US. Who you are and where you live can be so important to not only how you access food, but also where you access it, what kinds of food you have access to, and how these limitations affect your health.

Three, our findings related to mental health, while not surprising, are unsettling and important. We need to document in detail the kinds of consequences public health disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic are having on people living in the US during this unique time in the social history of our country. Our research finds that among a significant number of persons, there were elevated depressive symptoms, increased levels of suicide ideation, higher than expected generalized anxiety symptoms, and a general unsettled attitude.

JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19?

KF: Knowledge is important when combatting a deadly virus. Being prepared, physically, and mentally, to fight this virus is daunting, exhausting, and for many, a frightening time because of their increased physical vulnerability. Being away from friends and family, unable to go to school, work, church, or even the movies can be extremely isolative and lonely, particularly people who are single and living alone. We have seen elevated levels of depression among persons living alone, older persons, and particularly females. Be on the lookout for friends and family experiencing isolation and loneliness. Technology has become our best friend because of physical distancing—use it and help others stay connected. Finally, fear is real. Acknowledge it, but also do the things that minimize the potential threat—wear a mask, wash your hands, and physically distance from others.

Our research suggests that there are some important mitigators to the stress and risk people are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our perception of social ties, social support, and an overall healthy attitude become very important resources we can draw on when combatting the mental and physical health risks during a public health crisis. Additionally, our work seems to suggest that a positive attitude in the form of optimism is key to lowering the negative effects of risk when it comes to mental health consequences like depression and anxiety.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

KF: We are excited to continue our work on this project and are looking closer at the intersection of fear, place, and health. We have started to amass a large number of additional data sources (Google, Census, CDC, etc.) and have merged them with the individual survey data. What we are most interested in learning about is which factors, individual or community level, are most important in determining outcomes like food insecurity and mental health symptomatology. We know that the communities people live in are important and can be vital to understanding the social and psychological complexities of a wide range of attitudes and behavior. Additionally, now during this pandemic, we are asking, how are communities that have been greatly impacted by the novel coronavirus responding? My upcoming book, with New York University Press, Hurricane Harvey’s Aftermath: Place, Race, and Inequality in Disaster Recovery, asks a lot of the same questions. What are communities doing to prepare for the next public health disaster, and how can we learn from this most recent disaster and improve our response, service, and access to those populations in the greatest need?


Follow Dr. Kevin Fitzpatrick on Facebook and Twitter.

Extended Bio:

Dr. Fitzpatrick’s work has examined topics related to food insecurity, obesity, homelessness, exposure to violence, and risk-taking behavior among adolescents. His forthcoming book with co-author Matthew Spialek is published with New York University Press, (Hurricane Harvey’s Aftermath: Place, Race and Inequality in Disaster Recovery) and details the recovery experience of over 300 persons interviewed just months after Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast of Texas in 2017. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the book explores the complicated and tragic circumstances that socially vulnerable and often resource-limited subpopulations face during the natural disaster recovery process.

Fitzpatrick, K. M., Harris, C., & Drawve, G. (2020). Fear of COVID-19 and the mental health consequences in AmericaPsychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. DOI: 10.1037/tra0000924.

Fitzpatrick, K. M., Harris, C., & Drawve, G (2020). How bad is it? Suicidality in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, https://doi.org/10.1111/sltb.12655.

Funding for the project: RAPID (National Science Foundation) SES # 2027148. The Diffusion of Fear and Coronavirus: Tracking Individual Response Across Time and Space.