Wellbeing and Mental Health

This is how COVID-19 has affected mental health in the US

ER doctor Anne Messman poses for a photo amid a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Detroit, Michigan, U.S.

Depression among adults in the US tripled in early 2020 due to the pandemic. Image: REUTERS/Emily Elconin

Jillian McKoy
Communications, Boston University
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  • US depression rates have increased in 2021, according to new research.
  • Depression among adults in the US tripled in early 2020 due to the pandemic.
  • Before COVID-19, depression levels stood at 8.5% rising to 27.8% in 2020.
  • Today, it has risen to 32.8%, affecting 1 in every 3 American adults.
  • The findings point to the inextricable link between the pandemic and the short- and long-term impact it will have on mental health.

New research reveals that high rates of depression have persisted from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic into 2021, and even worsened.

Depression among adults in the United States tripled in the early 2020 months of the global coronavirus pandemic—jumping from 8.5% before the pandemic to a staggering 27.8%. In 2021, rates climbed to 32.8%, affecting 1 in every 3 American adults.

The study is the first nationally representative study in the US that examines the change in depression prevalence before and then during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Low household income, not being married, and experiencing multiple pandemic-related stressors were the most significant predictors for if a person experienced depressive symptoms during the pandemic, according to the study, published in the journal The Lancet Regional Health—Americas.

The findings underscore the inextricable link between the pandemic and the short- and long-term impact it will have on mental health in the US and beyond.

“The sustained high prevalence of depression does not follow [the same] patterns [we observed] after previous traumatic events, such as Hurricane Ike and the [West African] Ebola outbreak,” says senior author Sandro Galea, professor and dean of Boston University School of Public Health.

a chart showing how different countries have been affected by covid and mental health problems
COVID-19 has taken a toll on mental health worldwide. Image: Statista
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“Typically, we would expect depression to peak following the traumatic event and then lower over time. Instead, we found that 12 months into the pandemic, levels of depression remained high.”

Galea and collaborators used the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9), a popular and accurate self-administered depression screening tool, to assess depression symptoms and gather demographic data from survey respondents. Those people included 5,065 respondents to the 2017-2018 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and additional respondents to two COVID-19 Life Stressors Impact on Mental Health and Well-Being (CLIMB) surveys.

First, researchers surveyed respondents between March 31 to April 13, 2020, when the majority of the US population was under stay-at-home advisories. Then, they surveyed the same group again a year later, between March 23 to April 19, 2021. Both the NHANES and CLIMB surveys used the PHQ-9. The CLIMB surveys also gathered data on COVID-related stressors, such as job loss, the death of a loved one due to COVID, financial problems, feeling alone, and a lack of childcare.

The survey responses suggested that the burden of depression intensified over the course of the pandemic and disproportionately impacted adults with lower incomes. When adjusting for other demographics, people making less than $20,000 in spring 2020 were 2.3 times more likely to experience elevated depressive symptoms, compared to people making $75,000 or more; by spring 2021, low-income adults were seven times more likely to experience these symptoms.

Although population-level stressors decreased overall during the first year of the pandemic, people experiencing four or more stressors were more likely to also experience elevated depressive symptoms—and least likely to overcome those stressors.

“The sustained and increasing prevalence of elevated depressive symptoms suggests that the burden of the pandemic on mental health has been ongoing—and that it has been unequal,” says lead author Catherine Ettman, a doctoral candidate at Brown University School of Public Health and chief of staff and director of strategic initiatives in Boston University’s Office of the Dean. “Low-income populations have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and efforts moving forward should keep this population in mind.”

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She notes that stimulus packages and economic relief, as well as the speedy development and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, may have prevented even worse depression outcomes in the US.

Continuing support for Americans struggling the most could still help turn the tide. “Addressing stressors, such as job loss, challenges accessing childcare, and difficulties paying rent, will help to improve population mental health and reduce inequities that have deepened during the pandemic,” Ettman says.

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