Psychological Distress and Coronavirus Fears during the Initial Phase of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States

Michael T. French, Karoline Mortensen, Andrew R. Timming

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Introduction: The COVID-19 pandemic is a significant health and economic crisis around the world. The U.S. saw a rapid escalation in laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 and related deaths in March, 2020. The financial consequences of a virtual economic shutdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus are widespread and debilitating, with over 30 million Americans (about 20% of the labor force) filing for unemployment benefits since mid-March. During these unprecedented times, it is important to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on psychological distress and overall fear associated with the virus. Data: To gain an understanding of the overall levels and predictors of psychological distress experienced in the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., a survey was administered online to over 2,000 individuals residing in the country. The survey instrument was administered between March 22-26, 2020, during which time the country was suffering through a period of exponential growth in COVID-19 cases and fatalities. It was administered via MTurk, a popular crowdsourcing platform increasingly used by social scientists to procure large samples over a brief period of time. A short, valid screening instrument to measure psychological distress in individuals, the Kessler 10 scale was developed in the U.S. in the 1990s as an easy-to-administer symptom assessment. The first dependent variable is the respondents’ summated Kessler 10 score. The second dependent variable is a 7-category measure of how afraid the subject is about the novel coronavirus. The final dependent variable is also a 7-category scale, this time measuring self-reported likelihood of contracting the coronavirus. A variety of socio-demographic variables and health status were collected to analyze factors associated with psychological distress and mental health. Methods: Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) multiple regression was employed to analyze these data.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)93-100
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Mental Health Policy and Economics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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