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New research examines the links between depression rates and the current pandemic. Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images
  • Researchers polled participants at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and again a year later to assess depression symptoms.
  • After 1 year into the pandemic, nearly one-third of participants expressed having symptoms of depression.
  • The study found that people with certain factors, such as having a lower income, experienced a higher rate of depression symptoms.

The COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for millions of infections and deaths, but what other issues is it causing?

The Lancet Regional Health – Americas recently published a study examining how the COVID-19 pandemic affects mental health.

The study’s findings showed that not only has the pandemic caused a rise in depression, but it also indicated this increase is worse compared to other large-scale traumatic events, such as severe weather, terror attacks, or previous pandemics.

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The authors of the study by the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) used data collected on depression before the pandemic started and compared it to data gathered during the pandemic.

The study used data that the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected in 2017-2018.

The NHANES is part of a study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Among other things, the NHANES screens for depression symptoms.

According to the NHANES data, 8.5% of adults in the United States experienced symptoms of depression.

The participants in the current study completed a patient health questionnaire to determine whether they had any depression symptoms.

They answered the first questionnaire in the spring of 2020, during the early months of the pandemic. At this time, 27.8% of adults indicated they had elevated symptoms of depression, more than three times higher than the 2017-2018 NHANES data.

When the study participants answered the second questionnaire a year later, the numbers were even higher — 32.8% of adults responded by saying they had elevated depression symptoms in spring 2021.

“The sustained high prevalence of depression does not follow patterns after previous traumatic events such as Hurricane Ike and the Ebola outbreak,” says Dr. Sandro Galea, a senior author of the study. Dr. Galea is both Dean and Robert A. Knox Professor.

“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.”

– Dr. Sandro Galea

The study considered the demographics of the participants, and the researchers looked at factors such as race, income, and education level.

For example, individuals with lower income levels were more likely to experience depressive traits.

People who earned less than $20,000 per year experienced depressive traits at 46.9% in the 2020 survey. This is significantly higher than those who made more than $75,000 annually, who experienced depression symptoms at 16.9%.

In the 2021 survey, depression symptoms in individuals making less than $20,000 per year went up to 58.1%, while symptoms in those who made more than $75,000 decreased to 14.1%.

“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 study lead author Catherine Ettman.

Ettman is a doctoral candidate at Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, RI, and the Chief of Staff and Director of Strategic Development at BUSPH.

“Low income populations have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and efforts moving forward should keep this population in mind,” Ettman says.

Younger adults also reported experiencing depression at a higher rate than older adults.

Adults in the 18–39 age bracket reported experiencing depressive traits at a rate of 38.8% in the 2020 survey and then at 43.9% in the 2021 survey.

Adults aged 60 and older, on the other hand, reported elevated depressive traits at a rate of 14.9% in 2020 and then at 19.1% in 2021.

Sara Makin, who holds an M.S. in Education in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and is also the founder and CEO of Makin Wellness, spoke with Medical News Today on the findings.

“It seems that this may have been because important and impactful experiences were taken away from them, such as living on a college campus, going out to meet other people, or socializing with friends and family members,” Ms. Makin suggested. “Those who are older may already have developed social supports who reside in the same household as them.”

Ms. Makin said she agrees with the findings because of the “increase of mental health services people are seeking related to the pandemic.”

She also noted that the circumstances of the pandemic, where many individuals have had to shelter-in-place or otherwise drastically cut back on their time amongst others, could be a contributing factor.

“Many people have also been isolated because of stay-at-home orders issued at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Ms. Makin. “Isolation is something that can lead to feelings of depression.”

Tania Diggory, a mindfulness teacher, mental health trainer, and founder of Calmer, also spoke with MNT about the study.

“It is no surprise that the pandemic has had such an impact on many individuals’ state of mental well-being,” Ms. Diggory said.

“Spending time with and hugging loved ones, good health, a work routine, and enjoying a variety of activities are just a few examples of what nurtures the mind, body, and spirit, and many of our basic human needs have been either restricted or stripped back completely over the past 18 months.”

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