US cases of depression have tripled during the COVID-19 pandemic


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A large study finds a dramatic increase in the number of adults in the United States reporting symptoms of depression during the COVID-19 pandemic.

person looking sad
Recent data indicate that the number of adults with depression symptoms in the U.S. has increased threefold during the pandemic.

The number of adults experiencing depression in the U.S. has tripled, according to a major study. Researchers estimate that more than 1 in 4 U.S. adults now report experiencing symptoms of depression.

Before the pandemic, 8.5% of U.S. adults reported being depressed. That number has risen to 27.8% as the country struggles with COVID-19.

Prof. Sandro Galea, a dean at Boston University (BU) School of Public Health, MA, is senior author of the study.

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“Depression in the general population after prior large-scale traumatic events has been observed to, at most, double,” he notes.

While reports of depression have increased in response to earlier crises, such as the 9/11 attack and the spread of Ebola in West Africa, the extent of this recent finding is something new.

The study features in the journal JAMA Network Open. The Rockefeller Foundation–Boston University 3-D Commission and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provided funding for the research.

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About the study

The BU study is the first large-scale investigation into America’s mental health in response to COVID-19.

To measure the prevalence of depression symptoms among the population, the researchers worked with mental health professionals’ leading tool for this purpose: the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9).

The researchers used the 2017–2018 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) as a baseline measurement of depression rates before the beginning of the pandemic. A total of 5,065 individuals responded to that survey.

They compared these data with the findings of the COVID-19 and Life Stressors Impact on Mental Health and Well-being (CLIMB) study, which surveyed 1,441 U.S. adults between March 31 and April 13, 2020. This study also used PHQ-9, facilitating the comparison of changes in the prevalence of depression among the population.

Although the 2020 survey took place relatively early in the pandemic, by the time it was complete, stay-at-home advisories and shelter-in-place orders were in place for about 96% of the public.

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Reasons behind depression

The CLIMB survey also questioned participants regarding the various stressors associated with the pandemic. These stressors included the death of a friend or loved one and financial worries, such as the loss, or potential loss, of personal income.

The survey found that symptoms of depression had risen in response to the pandemic across all demographic groups.

According to the survey participants, the predominant driver of depression was concern regarding personal financial well-being. Lead study author Catherine Ettman says, “Persons who were already at risk before COVID-19, with fewer social and economic resources, were more likely to report probable depression.”

Specifically, the team found that individuals with less than $5,000 in savings were 50% more likely to be experiencing symptoms of depression than those who had more.

Ettman says that the study underscores the value of a society “where a robust safety net exists, where people have fair wages, where equitable policies and practices exist, and where families can not only live on their income but can also save money toward the future.”

As for what the authorities can do now to lessen the emotional toll of the ongoing pandemic in the U.S., Ettman suggests:

“There may be steps that policymakers can take now to help reduce the impact of COVID-19 stressors on depression, such as eviction moratoria, providing universal health insurance that is not tied to employment, and helping people return to work safely — for those able to do so.”

Ettman hopes that her study can, at the very least, deliver some comfort to people struggling with depression by making them realize that they are far from alone.

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