The Pandemic Is Taking a Heavy Toll on Our Mental Health, Study Finds

People walk by a memorial for those who have died from the coronavirus outside Green-Wood Cemetery on May 27, 2020. (Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)
People walk by a memorial for those who have died from the coronavirus outside Green-Wood Cemetery on May 27, 2020. (Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

A new study out Wednesday is the latest to show that the covid-19 pandemic is taking a heavy toll on Americans’ mental health. The research found that more than a quarter of adults surveyed have clearly experienced depression symptoms recently — over three times as many who said the same in a survey taken before the pandemic.

Researchers from Boston University and elsewhere recruited more than 1,400 people between late March and mid-April 2020, interviewing them over the phone. These volunteers, intended to be a nationally representative sample from the U.S., answered a questionnaire routinely used to screen for depression symptoms (an example question would be asking how many days in the past two weeks you’ve had little interest or pleasure in doing things). Then their responses were compared to a sample of people who had taken part in the 2017-18 version of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a yearly annual survey of Americans’ lifestyle and dieting habits conducted by the government. The same questionnaire was used in both surveys.

Those with scores high enough to be considered moderate (10 or higher on a scale of 1 to over 20) were considered to have clear depression symptoms. Overall, 27.8 per cent of participants met that criteria during the pandemic period in March and April, compared to 8.7 per cent who reported the same in the earlier survey. Across every age and demographic group, these levels increased, though the same trends held up before and during the pandemic. More women reported depression symptoms than men in either time period, for instance, but the gap grew larger during the pandemic (33.3 per cent of women had symptoms of depression during the pandemic, compared to 21.9 per cent of men).

When they included people with mild depression symptoms, this disparity grew larger. Slightly over half of Americans (52.5 per cent) reported some symptoms of depression during the pandemic, compared to 24.7 per cent before.

The findings were published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open.

“To our knowledge, this is the first nationally representative study that assessed depression symptoms using the Patient Health Questionnaire–9 in U.S. adults before and during the covid-19-pandemic,” the authors wrote. “We found a shift in depression symptoms, with fewer people with no symptoms and more people with more symptoms during covid-19 than before covid-19.”

Having symptoms of depression doesn’t necessarily translate to having clinical, or major depression, which can be very difficult to treat and can last for months or years at a time. It’s possible that many people experiencing symptoms during March and April have already recovered or will do so without the need for dedicated treatment. But though the number of daily deaths reached their current peak in March and April, the country as a whole has experienced more than 150,000 deaths since then, while daily new cases remain very high and close to 1,000 people are still reported to die every day on average.

This also isn’t the first evidence to suggest that the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic, such as the death or illness of loved ones or the loss of employment due to lockdowns and scant government support, are affecting our collective mental health in the U.S. and elsewhere. Indeed, according to the researchers, there’s evidence the pandemic may be having a greater impact on mental health than other large scale traumatic events in recent history that have affected countries, such as the protests in Hong Kong against the government that led to thousands of arrests and injuries of protesters. And unlike many natural disasters, which are localised to one area and/or short-lasting, the ongoing fallout of the pandemic isn’t likely to fade away anytime soon, especially in the U.S., which continues to report the most deaths and known cases in the world by a wide margin.

As has often been the case during the pandemic, these mental health effects are likely to hit vulnerable segments of the population much harder than others. In the study, people with lower income were at greater risk for depression symptoms than those with high income, while having less than $7,000 in savings was linked to a 50 per cent higher risk of depression symptoms.