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Coronavirus has caused significant mental health strain in Colorado — for some more than others

A new survey from the Colorado Health Foundation shows sharp divisions based on race, income and political affiliation

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More than half of Coloradans have suffered from increased mental health strain during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new survey from the Colorado Health Foundation that finds deep differences in how people in the state have experienced the pandemic and surrounding social strife based on race, income and political affiliation.

There are moments of unity shown in the data — for instance, a majority of Coloradans favor mask mandates. But, overall, the survey provides an alarming look at the fractured Colorado that is confronting this historic public health crisis.

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Coloradans with higher incomes are less likely to say they have experienced stress — and more likely to say they are actually better off financially now than they were a year ago. White Coloradans are less likely to say that they consider police violence or misconduct to be a serious problem facing the state.

Democrats are more likely to say they believe that illnesses and deaths caused by coronavirus are a serious concern worth prioritizing ahead of the economy, and Republicans are more likely to say they believe it is important to fully reopen the economy to get people back to work, even if that means more lives are lost.

Nearly 40% of Coloradans surveyed — a number that extrapolates out to roughly 2 million people — are worried they won’t be able to afford either housing, health insurance or food in the coming year. When looking at Coloradans who make less than $30,000 a year, the percentage climbs above 75%. Of those making more than $100,000 per year, 18% are worried about not being able to afford at least one of those three.

“That’s just a huge proportion of our residents who are concerned about pretty basic needs in our state,” said Lori Weigel, one of two pollsters who conducted the survey for the Colorado Health Foundation. “I think we know that. But then to see those numbers just puts it in sharp relief.”

Added Dave Metz, the other pollster who worked on the survey: “It’s like there are two Colorados that are experiencing this in very different ways.”

Adam Becker, owner of StorySpring Consulting, talks to Mental Health Center of Denver president and CEO Dr. Carl Clark via online video. MHCD rolled out telemental health capacity for the center within about 24 hours so that therapists could meet virtually with clients during the new coronavirus outbreak. (Photo provided by StorySpring Consulting)

Rising mental health concerns

The poll, the latest of the Colorado Health Foundation’s annual Pulse polls, was conducted by Weigel’s New Bridge Strategy and Metz’s FM3 Research. Politically, Weigel aligns with Republicans and Metz with Democrats. They surveyed 2,275 adult Coloradans in August either on the phone or online. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 2.83%.

“This research allows us to listen and understand Coloradans, so that we can make the most informed decisions to bring health in reach and improve health equity today, and into the future,” Karen McNeil-Miller, the foundation’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

Overall, when asked about their mental health, Coloradans are upbeat. Nearly two-thirds of Coloradans say their mental health is excellent or very good.

But 53% say they have experienced increased mental health strain during the pandemic, including anxiety, stress and loneliness. That strain is greatest for those who make the least and those who are younger. Coloradans age 75 and older — the group most at risk for severe problems from a coronavirus infection — are least likely to report increased mental health strain from the pandemic, according to the survey.

A couple dozen Western Slope residents gathered at the intersection of Main Street and Townsend Avenue in downtown Montrose to protest the ongoing state-mandated closures in effect due to COVID-19. The Open Colorado rally was held in Demoret Park Saturday April 18, 2020. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A host of other worries

Coloradans surveyed said the pandemic is the top concern facing the state. That may not seem like such a surprise, but, to Weigel, it is astonishing how one issue has come to overtake and define all others.

Almost every other top concern identified in the survey can relate to the pandemic. The second biggest concern, according to the poll, is worry over our systems of government and politics — something Weigel said she has never seen before at that level. The economy, climate change and wildfires; homelessness and housing; health care and insurance; traffic and infrastructure; social justice and racism; public safety; and education round out the top 10. 

“Every aspect of our lives has changed clearly in terms of the pandemic,” Weigel said, “and I think the pandemic has heightened or brought about these other concerns that are very top of mind.”

“It’s not like all of the things Coloradans were concerned about before went away,” Metz said. “It’s layered on top of all of that. … The amount of burden that’s been placed on people here has just risen and risen and risen, and they don’t feel like our institutions have risen to that challenge.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Deep partisan divisions

Partisan differences infuse quite a few of the responses, especially related to the pandemic.

When asked whether the illnesses and deaths caused by COVID-19 are an extremely or very serious problem facing the state, 68% of Democrats say they are, compared to 21% of Republicans. Democrats are far more likely to say it is better to save as many lives as possible even if it hurts the economy (82% to 16%), and Republicans are more likely to say it is more important to fully reopen the economy even if that means more people will die from the coronavirus (73% to 10%). Independents are roughly split, with slightly more favoring saving lives.

The same split occurs for schooling. Republicans are more likely to say that they are worried online schooling will go on too long, causing kids to fall behind (69% to 20% for Democrats). Democrats are more likely to say that they worry kids will be sent back to school in-person too soon, causing greater viral spread (70% to 21% for Republicans).

But the partisan differences don’t stop with attitudes about COVID-19. Majorities of Democrats say that climate change, racial discrimination, pollution, domestic violence, police misconduct and hunger are extremely or very serious problems facing the state. Less than a third of Republicans say that any one of those issues is an extremely or very serious problem. 

Majorities of Democrats and Republicans agreed that the cost of living, homelessess, jobs and the economy, the quality of public education and the harm that coronavirus has caused to the economy are all serious issues facing the state.

A sign at the third day of protests in Denver on May 30, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Racial disparities

Another of the survey’s consistent findings is that white Coloradans on the whole do not share the level of concern that Black Coloradans do about racism or police misconduct.

Nearly two-thirds of Black residents say police misconduct is a serious problem, compared to about a third of white residents. Black Coloradans are far more likely to report having had a negative interaction with police or being afraid of police — 18% and 42%, respectively — than white Coloradans — 12% and 14%.

A majority of white Coloradans, 57%, say Black residents are more likely to be treated unfairly by police. But when asked whether racial bias and discrimination is a serious issue facing the state, 57% of Black Coloradans say it is compared to 43% of white Coloradans. 

Black and Hispanic Coloradans are also more worried about the pandemic than white residents, reporting greater worries over being able to pay for housing, health care and food and being more likely to favor prioritizing saving lives over reopening the economy.

Areas of agreement

But there are also glimpses of consensus, especially when it comes to how the government should respond to the pandemic.

Mandates requiring the wearing of face masks in businesses are popular — 72% of all respondents said they support them, including 53% of Republicans.

A strong majority of Coloradans, including majorities in both major political parties and among independents, supports providing free access to coronavirus testing and any vaccine that is developed to fight the virus; ensuring that no one goes hungry or without health insurance; and doing more to help those who are unemployed, in need of mental health or substance abuse treatment or homeless.

“It’s pretty clear,” Weigel said, “that more Coloradans are saying, ‘Err on the side of caution’ and are supportive of a range of different attempts to mitigate the virus.”


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