Nowhere to go? A study of marginalization, social connection, and mental health outcomes among young adults experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic

Elisa Borowski, Amanda Stathopoulos*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Background: The COVID-19 pandemic onset necessitated large-scale closures of third places, potentially exacerbating social barriers experienced by young adults in the United States. To better understand the role of urban form in facilitating socialization, we examine the effects of pandemic-based third place closures on mental health outcomes as mediated by changes in social connection. Because identifying as a racial, gender, or sexual minority can compound baseline disadvantages rooted in systemic inequities, we investigate outcome differences for non-white, woman/nonbinary, and LGBTQ+ young adults to disentangle identity-based nuances of the pandemic experience. Methods: In February 2021, we administered a web-based survey with retrospective name and place generators to 313 18-to-34-year-olds in California, Illinois, and Texas. A structural equation model is estimated showing the direct and indirect effects of physical and virtual mobility constraints on mental health. Results: Both the closure of third places and dissatisfaction with alternative social spaces are associated with the deterioration of social connections and mental health. The strongest direct predictor of mental health decline is dissatisfaction with virtual socialization (more significant for women and nonbinary respondents). Surprisingly, two distinct categories of third places (i.e., ‘civic’ and ‘commercial’) reveal different relationships with social connections and mental health outcomes. Asian, other non-white, and non-heterosexual young adults experienced greater ‘civic’ visit reduction, while those with intersecting identities of low income and woman/nonbinary or Black experienced greater ‘commercial’ visit reduction. Conclusions: Physical and virtual mobility reductions contributed to the inequitable mental health outcomes experienced by young adults during the pandemic. This highlights the potential for a careful redesign of physical and virtual social spaces to support feelings of belonging/safety and spontaneous ‘weak tie’ interactions, encourages further investigation of social infrastructure's role in facilitating the maintenance of social connections and mental health, and reveals the value of examining differences in mobility-related experiences across social identities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101589
JournalJournal of Transport and Health
StatePublished - May 2023


  • COVID-19 pandemic
  • Immobility and mobility reductions
  • Marginalized communities
  • Mental health
  • Social inequity
  • Third place

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality
  • Pollution
  • Health Policy
  • Transportation
  • Safety Research


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