The prevalence of depressive symptoms in US adults was more than 3-fold higher in the spring during the COVID-19 pandemic compared with before the pandemic, according to a study published online in JAMA Network Open.
“Depression in the general population after prior large scale traumatic events has been observed to, at most, double,” said study senior author Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH, dean and professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, Massachusetts, referencing examples such as the September 11, 2001 attacks and the Ebola outbreak.
“We were surprised to see these results at first,” she added, “but other studies since conducted suggest similar-scale mental health consequences” among health care workers and college students in Asia.
Researchers looked at 2 population-based surveys: the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted from 2017 to 2018, and the COVID-19 and Life Stressors Impact on Mental Health and Well-being study, conducted from March 31, 2020, to April 13, 2020. Their analysis included data for 5065 US adults in the 2017-2018 study and 1441 US adults in the COVID-19 study.
During the pandemic, the study found 27.8% of US adults had depression symptoms, as measured by the Patient Health Questionnaire-9, compared with 8.5% before the outbreak. That included 24.6% vs 16.2% of respondents reporting mild depression symptoms during COVID-19 compared with before, 14.8% vs 5.7% reporting moderate symptoms, 7.9% vs 2.1% reporting moderately severe symptoms, and 5.1% vs 0.7% reporting severe.
Lower income, having less than $5000 in household savings, and having exposure to more stressors were associated with a higher risk of depression symptoms during the pandemic, researchers found.
“While further data will be needed to assess the trajectory of depression in the US population and potential treatment for affected populations, it seems important to recognize the potential for the mental health consequences of COVID-19 to be large in scale, to recognize that these effects can be long-lasting, and to consider preventative action to help mitigate its effects,” researchers wrote.
“In particular, this burden is being borne by economically and socially marginalized groups, suggesting that individuals with low income and with fewer resources may benefit from particular policy attention in coming months.”