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RICHMOND, Va - From the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, health officials warned the impact of virus would do greater harm to vulnerable communities.

University of Richmond professor Ernest McGowen is studying how those disparities have impacted mental health within communities of color.

Professor McGowen and a colleague are analyzing the results of the CDC’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey has tracked reports of anxiety or depression by Americans nationwide since April 2020.

“A lot of the disparities are happening not just because of race but because of where they are, where they live, and the structures that are in place,” McGowen said. “COVID has just exacerbated structural problems that were already there for people of color."

The data show an elevated level of reported anxiety and depression for Black and Brown communities compared to other groups over the course of the pandemic. McGowen said that links with a theory he studies closely: social identity theory.

“This idea that when something happens to a member of a group you belong to then you feel that emotion acutely, more acutely than someone that’s from another group,” he said. “But, because they see these disparities going on, then they might have higher levels of that depression and anxiety.”

Factors like access to testing, administration of COVID-19 vaccines, and higher rates of infection and death in the Black community have directly contributed to the elevated levels of mental health incidents, according to McGowen.

Although their analysis of the full data is still ongoing, McGowen said those trends seem to hold regardless of socio-economic status.

People of greater means theoretically can more easily work from home or drive their own vehicle to testing site. That can limit risk factors for contracting the virus compared to community members with fewer financial resources.

“So, the impact on you would seem to be lower, but we still see the higher impacts in the African Americans,” McGowen said.

The study will also examine the behavioral implications for various communities, McGowen said. As for what the research will mean for the greater community and how people think about the impacts of the pandemic, he said the politicization of the virus in some instances has led to real-world consequences.

“So COVID is just another thing that is showing how that kind of politics and that ideology goes into how certain people feel,” he said. “That is one of the major issues that I think that we’re going to have to deal with going forward.”

“I would say we need more empathy,” McGowen said.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for their mental well-being, we have resources available here.

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