At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-April, almost 28% of American adults had symptoms of depression, compared to 8.5% before the epidemic, according to a new study.
What were the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health?
Although it is still too early to measure the long-term effects, especially because the health crisis is not over, scientific studies on the psychological consequences of containment are beginning to be published.
Among them, a study by the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH), published in JAMA Network Open magazine, shows the dramatic impact that the epidemic and containment have had on mental health. According to these results, 27.8% of American adults surveyed experienced symptoms of depression, three times the usual rates of depression in the adult population of the United States.
“The Depression rate in the general population after previous major traumatic events at most doubled,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Sandro Galea. This was the case, for example, in the US after the September 11, 2011 attacks, in West Africa after the Ebola epidemic, and after the unrest in Hong Kong.
An unprecedented level of depression
Here, cases of depression more than tripled from 8.5% in the adult population to almost 28%. “We were initially surprised to see these results, but other studies conducted since then suggest that mental health consequences of similar magnitude have been reported,” says Dr. Galea.
To estimate the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on the US population, researchers used data from two studies: one on 5,065 respondents from the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES), conducted between 2017 and 2018, and the other on 1,441 respondents from the COVID-19 Life Stressors Impact on Mental Health and Well-Being (CLIMB) study. The CLIMB study was conducted through a questionnaire between 31 March and 13 April 2020, when 96% of the US population was confined, and collected data on the stress factors associated with COVID-19, including job loss, death of a friend or loved one, and financial problems.
Overall, researchers found an increase in depressive symptoms in all demographic groups. It is therefore not surprising that confronting more COVID-19 stress factors is an important predictor of depressive symptoms.
Fear of financial problems
In contrast to other periods after a crisis or traumatic events, researchers have found that depressive syndromes related to fear of losing one’s job and financial problems are particularly important. Thus, during the studied period a person with less than 5,000 USD saved had a 50% higher risk of developing depressive symptoms than a person with higher savings.
“People who were already at risk before the health crisis and had fewer social and economic resources were more likely to report a likely depression, suggesting that inequalities may increase during this period and that health differences may increase,” said Catherine Ettman, a PhD student at Brown University’s School of Public Health, the study’s lead author.
According to the researcher, these findings should encourage policy makers to “take action now to reduce the impact of COVID-19 stressors on depression. The proposed measures include a moratorium on evictions, the introduction of universal health insurance for those without employment, and assistance in returning to work safely.