America’s mayors are most concerned about the lingering mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a nationwide survey of 126 mayors conducted during the summer of 2021.
The respondents headed cities with at least 75,000 residents. The local leaders are still focused on traditional issues such as violent crime, the economy and infrastructure, but they are most concerned about the pandemic’s long-term impact on the mental health of their constituents.
Mental health was top of mind for Michael Udine when he was sworn in as mayor of Broward County, Florida, in November 2021.
“Everything that was a potential issue pre-pandemic has pretty much been exacerbated by the pandemic,” he says. “There were issues going into the pandemic, and it was becoming more and more important on everyone's radar screen about the mental health of people of all ages. And I think the pandemic pretty much supercharged those issues.”
It is not unusual for large outbreaks of disease to have a negative impact on mental health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reports that rates of anxiety and depressive disorders among adults increased during the pandemic.
The pandemic has also adversely influenced the emotional and mental health of about one-third of America’s youth.
“What we've seen is just such anxiety, kids who wouldn't ordinarily have a meltdown, because it's so much change and difficulty adjusting to transitions,” Maryland psychologist Mary Karapetian Alvord told VOA last month. “We've also seen a lot more sadness and depression.”
Early on in the pandemic, mayors were more focused on city operations, budget shortfalls and the threat the pandemic posed to small businesses, according to David Glick, an associate professor of political science at Boston University and a co-author of the 2021 Menino Survey of Mayors.
“Some of those concerns still remain, but what we saw more of in 2021 … is concern about some of the long-term impacts on individual residents,” Glick says. “Concerns about polarization over vaccines and just people being pushed to their limits … and certainly less on their city budgets and revenues and having to cut programs and some of those types of things that were probably more top of mind earlier in the pandemic.”
Over half of mayors, 52%, are worried about “lingering mental health challenges and trauma,” according to the survey. Additionally, more than one-third of mayors, 37%, are worried about learning loss among young people.
“Second only to mental health and trauma, and they're probably not totally independent concerns,” Glick says. “It is part of that shift of mayors’ concerns from immediate threats to businesses closing and people getting sick, to some of these longer-term consequences that are going to persist in the future. And learning loss among their students, they’re worried it's going to persist for many, many, many years into the future. It's hard to make up for.”
According to the survey, other top concerns for America’s mayors include the financial insecurity of low-income residents (33%), the closing of small businesses (29%) and increased crime and violence (26%).
Just 7% of mayors are worried about the shift to remote work and the long-term impact that could have on outmigration — people moving away from their cities.
The $350 billion in funding from the American Rescue Plan to local and state governments could help mayors address some of their concerns. The survey found that 78% of mayors believe the money will allow them to make meaningful change.
“What we're seeing is a large majority are using it for things they consider to be transformative and will make major changes to their cities,” Glick says, “instead of feeling obligated or feeling the necessity to use it to plug up over-budget gaps to keep the doors open and the lights on.”