Wellbeing and Mental Health

How has the pandemic impacted mental health in the US?

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The COVID-19 pandemic is associated with worsening mental health in the US and around the world. Image: Unsplash/totalshape

John Gramlich
Writer and Editor, Pew Research Center
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Pandemic Preparedness and Response

  • Pew Research Center summarizes the key findings of its recent surveys on mental health, as well as the related research of other US organizations.
  • Four-in-ten US adults have experienced high levels of psychological distress since the COVID-19 outbreak began, it says.
  • While young adults, women, people in lower-income households and those with disabilities or health conditions are more likely to have experienced high psychological distress during the pandemic.
  • More than a third of high school students reported their mental health was not good, most or all of the time, during the pandemic and it's the top concern for US parents regarding their children's well-being.

The coronavirus pandemic has been associated with worsening mental health among people in the United States and around the world. In the U.S, the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 caused widespread lockdowns and disruptions in daily life while triggering a short but severe economic recession that resulted in widespread unemployment. Three years later, Americans have largely returned to normal activities, but challenges with mental health remain.

Here’s a look at what surveys by Pew Research Center and other organizations have found about Americans’ mental health during the pandemic. These findings reflect a snapshot in time, and it’s possible that attitudes and experiences may have changed since these surveys were fielded. It’s also important to note that concerns about mental health were common in the U.S. long before the arrival of COVID-19.

1. At least four-in-ten U.S. adults (41%) have experienced high levels of psychological distress at some point during the pandemic, according to four Pew Research Center surveys conducted between March 2020 and September 2022.

Young adults are especially likely to have faced high levels of psychological distress since the COVID-19 outbreak began: 58% of Americans ages 18 to 29 fall into this category, based on their answers in at least one of these four surveys.

Women are much more likely than men to have experienced high psychological distress (48% vs. 32%), as are people in lower-income households (53%) when compared with those in middle-income (38%) or upper-income (30%) households.

In addition, roughly two-thirds (66%) of adults who have a disability or health condition that prevents them from participating fully in work, school, housework or other activities have experienced a high level of distress during the pandemic.

The Center measured Americans’ psychological distress by asking them a series of five questions on subjects including loneliness, anxiety and trouble sleeping in the past week. The questions are not a clinical measure, nor a diagnostic tool. Instead, they describe people’s emotional experiences during the week before being surveyed.

While these questions did not ask specifically about the pandemic, a sixth question did, inquiring whether respondents had “had physical reactions, such as sweating, trouble breathing, nausea, or a pounding heart” when thinking about their experience with the coronavirus outbreak. In September 2022, the most recent time this question was asked, 14% of Americans said they’d experienced this at least some or a little of the time in the past seven days.

The percentage of US adults who have reported high levels of psychological distress since the start of the pandemic
Women are more likely than men to have experienced high psychological distress since the pandemic. Image: Pew Research Center

2. More than a third of high school students have reported mental health challenges during the pandemic. In a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from January to June 2021, 37% of students at public and private high schools said their mental health was not good most or all of the time during the pandemic. That included roughly half of girls (49%) and about a quarter of boys (24%).

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In the same survey, an even larger share of high school students (44%) said that at some point during the previous 12 months, they had felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row – to the point where they had stopped doing some usual activities. Roughly six-in-ten high school girls (57%) said this, as did 31% of boys.

Statistic showing the percentage of high school students report being sad or hopeless.
Roughly six-in-ten high school girls felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row. Image: Pew Research Center

On both questions, high school students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, other or questioning were far more likely than heterosexual students to report negative experiences related to their mental health.

3. Mental health tops the list of worries that U.S. parents express about their kids’ well-being, according to a fall 2022 Pew Research Center survey of parents with children younger than 18.

In that survey, four-in-ten U.S. parents said they’re extremely or very worried about their children struggling with anxiety or depression. That was greater than the share of parents who expressed high levels of concern over seven other dangers asked about.

While the fall 2022 survey was fielded amid the coronavirus outbreak, it did not ask about parental worries in the specific context of the pandemic. It’s also important to note that parental concerns about their kids struggling with anxiety and depression were common long before the pandemic, too. (Due to changes in question wording, the results from the fall 2022 survey of parents are not directly comparable with those from an earlier Center survey of parents, conducted in 2015.)

Statistic showing the percentage of parental concerns.
Four-in-ten U.S. parents express their worries about their children struggling with anxiety or depression. Image: Pew Research Center

4. Among parents of teenagers, roughly three-in-ten (28%) are extremely or very worried that their teen’s use of social media could lead to problems with anxiety or depression, according to a spring 2022 survey of parents with children ages 13 to 17. Parents of teen girls were more likely than parents of teen boys to be extremely or very worried on this front (32% vs. 24%). And Hispanic parents (37%) were more likely than those who are Black or White (26% each) to express a great deal of concern about this. (There were not enough Asian American parents in the sample to analyze separately. This survey also did not ask about parental concerns specifically in the context of the pandemic.)

5. Looking back, many K-12 parents say the first year of the coronavirus pandemic had a negative effect on their children’s emotional health. In a fall 2022 survey of parents with K-12 children, 48% said the first year of the pandemic had a very or somewhat negative impact on their children’s emotional well-being, while 39% said it had neither a positive nor negative effect. A small share of parents (7%) said the first year of the pandemic had a very or somewhat positive effect in this regard.

White parents and those from upper-income households were especially likely to say the first year of the pandemic had a negative emotional impact on their K-12 children.

While around half of K-12 parents said the first year of the pandemic had a negative emotional impact on their kids, a larger share (61%) said it had a negative effect on their children’s education.

Statistic showing the percentage of K-12 students affected by the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
48% said the first year of the pandemic had a very or somewhat negative impact on their children’s emotional well-being Image: Pew Research Center
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