The findings provide a first look into states’ social capital and how that social capital may confer mental health protection during the COVID-19 pandemic. We found that states with higher levels of social trust pre-pandemic tended to also have fewer persons experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, suggesting that their neighborly relations and sense of community may mitigate these symptoms. As expected, state mask mandates were associated with lower percentages of persons reporting anxiety and depression and could indicate that citizens feel less anxiety knowing the state is actively trying to prevent virus spread. States with higher levels of pre-pandemic civic participation reported greater symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic, although this finding was only significant at the 10% level. While somewhat counterintuitive, it could be a reflection of how the pandemic has limited social interaction, leading to elevated occurrences of anxiety and depression among the residents in those states and fits with other research in this area (6). Our findings compliment those of Bodes and Peleg who find that increased social trust was associated with greater compliance with self-quarantine regulations in Israel (16). We also found that higher percentages of persons over the age of 65 was related to increased anxiety and depression, which may reflect the increased risk of hospitalization and death due to COVID-19 in this age group (17). Finally, these aspects of social capital are significant, even while controlling for pre-pandemic mental health.
Overall, there was wide variation in social capital across states. The range between the least trusting states and the most is over 35%, with no apparent regional clustering of states. Similarly, as shown in Fig. 2, civic participation is variable, but appears to be lower in the South and Southwest. The wide variation indicates that social trust is changeable, though more research is needed into the specific policies and social supports that results in higher social trust.
A limitation of the research is that the data is cross sectional and cannot establish causality, albeit the independent variables are captured from an earlier time point compared to the dependent variable. We only measured bonding aspects of social capital and assumed that the social capital variables were relatively static during the pandemic; however, some research has found declining trust over the course of the pandemic (16). Future research should continue to explore how social capital changed over the course of the pandemic and explore the impact of bridging and linking social capital on mental health and community resiliency. Similarly, this research cannot rule out the presence of important but unmeasured variables.
Our findings support the importance of state level social capital on mitigating the adverse mental health effects associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Donnelly and Farina, also using Pulse data, found the provision of economic support - Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and suspended utility shut offs - provided a buttress against the impact of household income shocks on mental health (18). Similarly, our research supports the notion that social policies, many of which are enacted and enforced at state level, can support mental health. In addition to mask policies suggestions to increase social capital include increasing institutional effectiveness, accountability and transparency, and responding to citizen concerns (19).