Depression Rates up Threefold Since Start of COVID-19

Richard Kirkner

October 11, 2021

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

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the share of the U.S. adult population reporting symptoms of elevated depression had more than tripled from prepandemic levels and worsened significantly since restrictions went into effect, a study of more than 1,000 adults surveyed at the start of the pandemic and 1 year into it has reported.

The study also found that younger adults, people with lower incomes and savings, unmarried people, and those exposed to multiple stress factors were most vulnerable to elevated levels of depression through the first year of the pandemic.

Catherine Ettman

"The pandemic has been an ongoing exposure," lead author Catherine K. Ettman, a PhD candidate at Brown University, Providence, R.I., said in an interview. "Mental health is sensitive to economic and social conditions. While living conditions have improved for some people over the last 12 months, the pandemic has been disruptive to life and economic well-being for many," said Ettman, who is also chief of staff and director of strategic initiatives in the office of the dean at Boston University. Her study was published in Lancet Regional Health – Americas.

Ettman and coauthors reported that 32.8% (95% confidence interval, 29.1%-36.8%) of surveyed adults had elevated depressive symptoms in 2021, compared with 27.8% (95% CI, 24.9%-30.9%) in the early months of the pandemic in 2020 (P = .0016). That compares with a rate of 8.5% before the pandemic, a figure based on a prepandemic sample of 5,065 patients from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reported previously by Ettman and associates.

"The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences have displaced social networks, created ongoing stressors, and reduced access to the resources that protect mental health," Ettman said.

Four Groups Most Affected

In this latest research, a longitudinal panel study of a nationally representative group of U.S. adults, the researchers surveyed participants in March and April 2020 (n = 1,414) and the same group again in March and April 2021 (n = 1,161). The participants completed the Patient Health Questionnaire–9 (PHQ-9) and were enrolled in the COVID-19 and Life Stressors Impact on Mental Health and Well-Being study.

The study found that elevated depressive symptoms were most prevalent in four groups:

  • Younger patients, with 43.9% of patients aged 18-39 years self-reporting elevated depressive symptoms, compared with 32.4% of those aged 40-59, and 19.1% of patients aged 60 and older.

  • People with lower incomes, with 58.1% of people making $19,999 or less reporting elevated symptoms, compared with 41.3% of those making $20,000-$44,999, 31.4% of people making $45,000-$74,999, and 14.1% of those making $75,000 or more.

  • People with less than $5,000 in family savings, with a rate of 51.1%, compared with 24.2% of those with more than that.

  • People never married, with a rate of 39.8% versus 37.7% of those living with a partner; 31.5% widowed, divorced, or separated; and 18.3% married.

The study also found correlations between the number of self-reported stressors and elevated depression symptoms: a rate of 51.1% in people with four or more stressors; 25.8% in those with two or three stressors; and 17% in people with one or no stressors.

Among the groups reporting the lowest rates of depressive symptoms in 2021 were people making more than $75,000 a year; those with one or no COVID-19 stressors; and non-Hispanic Asian persons.

"Stressors such as difficulties finding childcare, difficulties paying for housing, and job loss were associated with greater depression 12 months into the COVID-19 pandemic," Ettman said. "Efforts to address stressors and improve access to childcare, housing, employment, and fair wages can improve mental health."

Dr Sandro Galea

The duration of the pandemic is another explanation for the significant rise in depressive symptoms, senior author Sandro Galea, MD, MPH, DrPH, said in an interview. "The COVID-19 pandemic is different from other traumatic events in its ongoing length, in its widespread reach, and in its inequities," Galea added. "Unlike acute traumatic events, the COVID-19 pandemic has been ongoing."

He said clinicians, public health officials, and policy makers need to be aware of the impact COVID-19 has had on mental health. "We can take steps as a society to treat and prevent depression and create conditions that allow all populations to be healthy," said Galea, who is dean and a professor of family medicine at Boston University.

Age of Sample Cited as Limitation

The study builds on existing evidence linking depression trends and the COVID-19 pandemic, David Puder, MD, a medical director at Loma Linda (Calif.) University, said in an interview. However, he noted it had some limitations. "The age range is only 18 and older, so we don't get to see what is happening with a highly impacted group of students who have not been able to go to school and be with their friends during COVID," said Puder, who also hosts the podcast "Psychiatry & Psychotherapy." "Further, the PHQ-9 is often a screening tool for depression and is not best used for changes in mental health over time."

Dr David Puder

At the same time, Puder said, one of the study's strengths was that it showed how depressive symptoms increased during the COVID lockdown. "It shows certain groups are at higher risk, including those with less financial resources and those with higher amounts of stress," Puder said.

Ettman, Galea, and Puder reported no relevant disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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