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Pandemic’s toll on rural Iowa a ‘looming mental health crisis’
Research finds COVID-19 impacts rural and urban Iowans differently
COVID-19 has upended all aspects of Iowans’ lives — but the impacts are very different depending on where they live, researchers have found.
A new survey found that while Iowans in the smallest towns have experienced a steep toll on their mental health throughout the pandemic, those living in larger communities were more likely to experience economic challenges and strains to their physical health.
Researchers from Iowa State University and the University of Iowa asked thousands of residents in 73 communities across the state to gauge how the pandemic effected various aspects of their lives, including their overall well-being and their financial situation. The collaborative survey effort was funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, an independent agency within the federal government.
“We wanted an idea of how rural areas were being impacted,” said David Peters, a rural sociologist at Iowa State University who led the research.
More than 5,000 Iowans responded to the survey, which was mailed to more than 13,500 households between December 2020 and February.
What the researchers found is that communities statewide have experienced the pandemic in very different ways. The various responses were likely driven not just by Iowans’ jobs and living situations, but also how they perceived the pandemic.
Meat packing towns faced steepest impacts
The 73 communities studied were placed in different categories: towns with populations under 3,000; towns with populations of 3,000 to 4,999; and towns with populations of 5,000 or more.
The survey also measured the impact of the pandemic in four cities with meatpacking plants — Columbus Junction, Storm Lake, West Liberty and Denison. All of these communities have minority populations that exceed 60 percent of the total community population
Researchers found the impact of the pandemic often was worse in those communities. Peters said these residents — who often were people of color or immigrants and tended to be lower incomes — faced increased risk of negative health outcomes and financial challenges because of their jobs.
Rural Iowans of color had higher COVID-19 positivity rates and were hospitalized for the virus more frequently than residents outside of meatpacking cities.
Among the respondents of color, 35 percent tested positive for COVID-19 and 8 percent were hospitalized with the coronavirus. By comparison, about 23 percent of white survey respondents tested positive and about 1.5 percent were hospitalized.
“This suggests rural Iowans of color — mainly in meatpacking towns — weren’t able to avoid risky situations that put them at risk for COVID-19,” Peters said. That includes working in close quarters with others on a packing line or living in large households with multiple families, he said.
Among those living in the meatpacking towns, 33 percent said the pandemic negatively impacted their financial stability and 16 percent said it threatened their housing. By comparison, 21 percent of Iowans living in other smaller towns reported dire financial situations and 5 percent reported a strain on their housing.
Overall, 30 percent of rural Iowans responding to the survey saw their working hours reduced during the pandemic and nearly 20 percent had to use their savings to make ends meet. In addition, roughly 10 percent lost their jobs or were unable to pay their bills as a result of COVID-19.
Mental health worsened in smallest communities
Peters said one of the more concerning findings was that the mental health of rural Iowans has taken a major hit during the pandemic.
Particularly in Iowa’s smallest communities, worsening mental health poses long-lasting problems. If it’s not addressed, Peters said, it could lead to other issues including more substance use disorders and domestic violence.
“I can’t overstate that we really have a looming mental health crisis,” he said.
In the smallest communities, about 40 percent of individuals reported the pandemic had worsened their mental health. In cities with more than 3,000 residents, 37 percent of respondents reported worsening mental health.
Findings also show about 20 percent of rural residents showed signs of depression and 15 percent showed signs of anxiety. Peters said pre-pandemic, that rate was about 6 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
COVID-19 has not hit Iowa’s smallest towns the way it has in communities with meatpacking facilities, which is likely why residents in those smaller towns felt more of an emotional impact than a physical impact.
Peters said the residents in the smallest communities were more likely to believe the pandemic was “overblown.”
Health care providers hold the highest spot for trusted sources of information on he pandemic, followed by public health agencies. However, the research found, few trusted information from social media, news outlets or state and federal elected officials.
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