'Staggering' Increase in COVID-Linked Depression, Anxiety

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW

July 30, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a dramatic increase in depression, anxiety, psychosis, and suicidality, new research shows.

The new data, released by Mental Health America (MHA), came from individuals who completed a voluntary online mental health screen.

As of the end of June, over 169,000 additional participants reported having moderate to severe depression or anxiety compared with participants who completed the screen prior to the pandemic.

In June alone, 18,000 additional participants were found to be at risk for psychosis, continuing a rising pattern that began in May, when 16,000 reported psychosis risk.

"We continue to see staggering numbers that indicate increased rates in depression and anxiety because of COVID-19," Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of MHA, said in a release.

"In fact, the problem is bigger than anyone imagined, making it clear how the pandemic is affecting people now and will continue to affect people who mourn loved ones and whose serious mental conditions are left untreated. So we need to take this very seriously," Gionfriddo told Medscape Medical News.

Real-Time Data

MHA has been conducting online screenings for 6 years. To date, nearly 5.5 million screenings have been completed, making it the largest screening program of its kind in the United States, Gionfriddo reported.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, we were asked by a member of the media if we could offer any insight about how anxiety in particular was affecting people during the pandemic, since we were the only ones with a database that could give quantitative detail," he said.

The results of their screen could also help find that information "in real time," he added.

More people are now undergoing mental health screenings, Gionfriddo noted.

At roughly 7000 per day in May and June, the number of anxiety and depression screenings that were completed per day were 406% and 457% higher, respectively, than the number completed in January.

The youngest group of participants were those aged 11 to 17 years; the oldest age group consisted of individuals 65 years and older.

The Patient Health Questionnaire–9 was used to identify those at risk for depression, the General Anxiety Disorder–7 was used to identify those at risk for anxiety, and the Prodromal Questionnaire Brief Version was used to identify those at high risk for psychosis.

Current Events

The most profound health problems were found among adults younger than 25 years. Roughly 90% screened positive for moderate to severe depression, and 80% screened positive for moderate to severe anxiety.

"Kids between the ages of 11 and 17 years have been the most stressed, but it seems to be easier to bear as you get older," Gionfriddo said.

Loneliness and isolation were cited as contributors to depression and anxiety by the largest percentage of individuals with these conditions (74% and 65%, respectively).

In June, roughly one quarter of participants also cited grief or loss and financial concerns as contributors to anxiety (25.31% and 24.18%, respectively) and to depression (26.53% and 23.36%).

Current events were cited as an important contributor, leading to more mental health problems in June compared to May (36.11% vs 29.41 for anxiety; 29.13% vs 21.77% for depression).

The June screen added the category of racism as a potential contributor. Close to 8% reported it as a reason for anxiety, and roughly 5% considered it a reason for depression.

"We will be releasing more data at the end of July, and it will be interesting to see how the racism category compares to data we collected at the end of June," Gionfriddo noted.

Dramatic Increase

The screen also showed a "dramatic increase" in the number of people who reported being at risk for psychosis, with 18,000 participants screening positive. This represented more than four times the baseline figures recorded through March.

"We were not surprised to see a spike in depression and anxiety, but why were we seeing a spike in psychosis in May/June?" Gionfriddo asked. He suggested that stress may play a role in driving this increased risk.

"These data, we hope, will get policymakers to pay attention, take it seriously, and intervene to prevent psychosis at an earlier stage before signs and symptoms emerge," said Gionfriddo.

One of the most alarming findings was that in June, 25,498 participants who screened positive for depression reported thinking of suicide or self-harm on "more than half of days to nearly every day." A total of 14,607 participants said they had these thoughts every day.

Overall, the results should reinforce the recommendations of the US Preventive Services Task Force to routinely screen for depression in any clinical setting on a regular basis, Gionfriddo said.

In addition, policymakers "need to balance reopening vs quarantining and isolating, and we need to think about what the next 2 to 4 years look like in terms of balancing physical health risks and mental health risks," he noted.

"We've been treating the pandemic like a sprint and now, 4 or 5 months into it, perhaps as a middle-distance run, when in fact it's a marathon," he added.

Advocates Needed

Commenting on the report for Medscape Medical News, Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, MD, chair of the Department of Psychiatry, Medstar Washington Hospital Center, Washington, DC, said her experience in clinical practice corroborates the increased levels of anxiety and depression in general, especially among young people.

The increase in anxiety and depression often centers around the changes and uncertainties in the college experience, such as whether classes will be held in person, online, or a hybrid of the two, said Ritchie, who was not involved with the research.

Additionally, some college students who have "left the nest" have been forced to "return to the nest," which compounds stress, she said.

LGBTQ youngsters may be particularly affected because some have "come out of the closet" while away from home and now must negotiate going back to their home of record. They are uncertain whether or not "to go back into the closet," added Ritchie, who is also vice chair of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, DC.

Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals should be advocates for "getting services to more people for the greatest good," she noted.

For example, the MHA data "might be useful in advocating for keeping telehealth accessible and even promoting it," she said.

The full report is available on MHA's website.

Gionfriddo and Ritchie report no relevant financial relationships.

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